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Environment / Sustainability

Wildlife students confer with colleagues at National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center

February 11, 2014
by Bryony Wardell

Do you have a BFF? For many wildlife and ecosystems in western prairies, the Endangered Black-footed Ferret (BFF) is a charismatic ambassador who might just have what it takes to save itself and the diverse ecology of the prairie that it calls home.

Black-footed Ferret babies - 37 days old.CSU wildlife biology students had a rare opportunity to visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado on Saturday, Feb. 8. The Center is  the largest of six captive breeding centers across the United States that have been working to bring the black-footed ferret back from the brink of extinction. The private tour provided students with a terrific opportunity to see a national wildlife conservation program in action with an endangered native species.

Species' conservation program

The students were part of the Wildlife Field Studies course led by Professor Paul Doherty in the Dept. of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources. They were able to see live BFF’s and learned about the history, science, and collaboration behind the species’ conservation program. 

Black-footed Ferret siblings swinging in a skytube at the captive breeding facility. Photo by NBFCC.“I loved the field trip as it was so relevant to my studies and research. The Center facilities and people are fantastic, and it was my first time seeing a live black-footed ferret,” said Dan Taylor, a senior from Baltimore majoring in Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at CSU. “They are such charismatic creatures and have an amazing history. The fact that the ferrets were re-discovered and have progressed from only a few surviving individuals is really fascinating.”

Thought to be extinct

A Black-footed Ferret peeks above ground to see what the students are up to.Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct as early as the 1950s due to habitat loss, canine distemper virus, and plague. They are the only ferret species native to North America spending their whole lives on prairie dog colonies. Over 90 percent of the ferret’s diet is prairie dog. The Black-footed Ferret has been classified as an endangered species in the United States since l967. They are currently classified as Endangered D on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“The elusive animal was rediscovered in 1981 near Meeteesete, Wyoming after a ranch dog named Shep accidentally killed a BFF and left it on its owner’s porch,” said Kimberly Tamkun, an outreach specialist for the Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center. “The discovery spurred the creation of the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program - a multi-agency consortium led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and including representatives from federal, state and tribal governments, zoos, private landowners and nonprofit organizations.”

A Black-footed Ferret at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery.Last remaining population

This last remaining population began to decline in the early 80s again due to canine distemper and plague. In order to save the species, Black-footed Ferrets were removed from prairie dog colonies outside of Meeteetse, Wyoming and a captive breeding program began as a last chance to save the species.

“My career goal is to manage a reintroduction program for T&E species and applied conservation genetics, so this field trip was a great learning experience,” said Tracy Susan, a senior fish, wildlife, and conservation biology major from Ohio. “It was rewarding to have the chance to speak with my career role models and get positive feedback regarding conservation genetics and their important role in conservation programs.”

With the entire species depending on a genetic pool of only eight remaining ferrets, an integrated Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Species Survival Program is utilized to help biologists determine the best breeding choices to maintain genetic diversity. Nearly 8,000 kits have been produced at captive breeding facilities since 1986.

CSU alumni saving a species

Robyn Bortner, a CSU alumna, is a wildlife biologist for the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center. She helps ensure the health of the BFFs so they can be released into the wild, and also has the special job of ferret matchmaker.

Wildlife student watch Black-footed Ferrets feeding with wildlife biologist Robyn Bortner.

“Successful captive breeding is a science, but it is also about behavior,” said Bortner. “We review the BFF stud book to find optimal genetic matches, and then we also include behavioral observations to pair up successful mates each spring.”

BFF kits become physically mature in only 90 days, and the Center has achieved a 90 percent survival rate. Bortner works with BFF veterinarian Mary Wright, also a CSU alumna, who provides medical care to the more than 120 kits born each spring.

“We provide vaccines for rabies, plague and a purified vaccination for canine distemper,” said Wright. “BFFs are not domesticated, so we are only able to freely handle the kits until about day 45 when their predator instincts kick in. They are incredibly cute, but also quite vicious and are not like its European cousin found in pet stores.”

Some captive born BFFs are retained each year to maintain the breeding population. Other surplus healthy and able BFFs are released into the wild, and those with any health or survival concerns become species ambassadors in live displays at museums and zoos across the country.

Why save the BFF?

“The black-footed ferret is important to save on its own as a native species, but it  can provide ancillary conservation benefits for less publicized species who utilize the same habitat of the prairie like the swift fox, mountain plover , Ferrginous Hawk and important plant communities,” said Tamkun.  “This charismatic species is a perfect vehicle for prairie conservation.”

For those interested in catching a glimpse of a black-footed ferret, be sure to visit the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery which has a live BFF display.