Top Ten Wildlife Areas We Love (and Would Hate to Lose)

Black-Footed Ferret
Black-Footed Ferret
Ferrets standing guard (USFWS/Luray Parker)

Why We Love It:

No doubt, this smelly member of the weasel family is a little monster. About two feet long, with black markings around its eyes, feet, and tail, the black-footed ferret not only feeds on hapless prairie dogs, it also lives in the burrows dug by them. Still, the ferret is the second most endangered animal in North America, after the Florida panther (which is clinging to existence in its dwindling southeastern domain).

Where It's Happiest:

Ferrets live solo, moving around prairie dog burrows without a permanent home. Some keep temporary dens, but are forced to move because their pungent odor gives them away to their prey. A single ferret can cover up to 100 acres of underground burrows. They're preyed upon by coyotes, badgers, and great-horned owls.

The Cold, Hard Numbers:

Always rare, black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct until a small population was found in Utah in 1984. Since then, ten populations, covering Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Utah, Arizona, and Mexico, have been reintroduced to the wild. Biologists estimate there are some 500 ferrets in the wild and 400 in captivity.

Who's to Blame:

The fate of the black-footed ferret is inextricably tied to the fate of the prairie dog. In the first half of the 20th century, ranchers, farmers, and the U.S. government systematically gassed, poisoned, and shot millions of prairie dogs in the interest of agriculture. Scientists estimate that between 95 and 99 percent of prairie dog, and thus black-footed ferret, habitat has been destroyed. Ferrets are also prone to diseases such as canine distemper and plague.

When It's Gone:

Prairie dogs are the plowmen for the grasslands of the Great Plains. Their burrowing naturally tills the soil, aiding in bison distribution and fire control. The ferret, too, plays its part in this equation, but according to Montana-based biologist Steve Forrest, little is known about the relationship between the predator and its prey. "We know black-footed ferrets naturally control prairie dog populations, though we're not sure how," says Forrest. "But for the ecosystem to function properly, we need to have the full complement of native wildlife.

Signs of Life:

Reintroduced populations in Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, near the Badlands in South Dakota, are thriving, while other populations in Wyoming and on the Cheyenne River in South Dakota continue to do well.

Published: 18 Mar 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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