Black-footed ferrets were once thought to be extinct until the mid-1980s, when 18 individuals were discovered in Wyoming. They were ultimately captured and put into a captive breeding program.
Black-tailed prairie dogs once numbered in the millions across the 11 states of their Great Plains historic range, but disease, habitat loss and human-initiated annihilation reduced their population down to 2 percent of the original numbers.
According to conservation biologists, black-footed ferrets depend on black-tailed prairie dogs for more than 90 percent of their food supply. When prairie dog populations decline, so does the number of ferrets.
Both species are highly susceptible to Sylvatic plague, which is a deadly illness spread by fleas. The existence of prairie dog colonies is vital for the survival of ferrets, but when disease hits they are both faced with high rates of mortality.
Prairie dogs, scientists say, are called ecosystem engineers, because they are a keystone species of the short-grass plains upon which more than 100 other species depend for food and shelter, particularly black-footed ferrets.
Conservation groups like WildEarth Guardians have made several attempts to get black-tailed prairie dogs listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but it has been an uphill battle with politics and deep-pocketed special interest groups such as the Cattlemen’s Association, opposed to any federal protection of a species that is despised by many ranchers and land owners.
However, the most derogatory action toward all five species of prairie dogs can be traced back to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for giving them the designation of “vermin” in the mid-1800s, which allowed millions of them to be poisoned, shot, bulldozed and otherwise exterminated as miles of their habitat was plowed under for crop-land conversion.
Black-footed ferrets were declared extinct in 1979 until a family dog delivered a dead ferret to the front door of its owner’s home in Meeteetsey, Wyo.
According to blackfootedferrets.org, biologists rounded up the 18 ferrets for an experimental captive breeding program that had never been attempted. After years of trial and error, the program has now successfully placed more than 1,000 black-footed ferrets into the wild in various self-sustaining populations across South Dakota, Arizona and Wyoming.
Furthermore, the preservation of prairie dogs, ferrets, bison, prong-horned elk and other Great American Plains animals can be attributed to a few private land owners like Ted Turner [Unlink], whose Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico holds wildlife tours where people can shoot prairie dogs with cameras, not guns.
Ironically for the lowly black-tailed underdog, until environmentalists can gain ESA protection for them, one of the best chances for survival is being a food source in the recovery of the most endangered animal in North America.
Under ESA protection the law requires preservation of black-footed ferret’s vital habitat stocked with deep burrows to breed and sleep in, but most importantly it must be near a prairie dog colony.
Anita Roddick wrote in “Better World Quotes”:
We should be evolving into a new age of business with a worldview that maintains one simple proposition—that all of nature: humans, animals, earth, are interconnected and interdependent.