The black-footed ferret, a small, land-dwelling carnivore, is a member of the weasel family. Adults weigh from 1 to 2.5 pounds and are 18 to 24 inches long. The tail is roughly 4 to 5 inches long. Male ferrets are generally larger than females. Their fur is mostly yellowish brown, except for the distinct black mask, feet and tip of tail.
Did you know? Although today’s black-footed ferrets are largely dependent upon prairie dogs, there is prehistoric evidence of black-footed ferrets in areas that have never been inhabited by any species of prairie dog (e.g., Idaho, extreme western Montana, and extreme northern Yukon).
Did you know? Some mammalogists consider North America’s black-footed ferret to be the same species as the steppe polecat of Asia. There are practically no physical differences between the two species, and they readily interbreed in captivity.
Black-footed ferrets are found in arid grasslands associated with prairie dog colonies. Captive-bred black-footed ferrets were reintroduced into the Coyote Basin area of Uintah County, Utah in late 1999. In addition to Utah's re-introduced black-footed ferret population, unconfirmed sightings of naturally occurring ferrets persist throughout eastern Utah.
The black-footed ferret is sometimes called "the rarest mammal in North America." Although they were believed to be extinct for many years, a wild population of black-footed ferrets was found in Wyoming in the early 1980s. When that population was threatened by disease, the last surviving 18 individuals were taken into captivity and used to start a captive breeding program. Descendants of those individuals have been released at several sites in the western United States, including areas in Utah.
Because black-footed ferrets are so closely associated with prairie dogs, the destruction of prairie dog colonies is a major threat to ferret populations. Many prairie dog colonies have been affected by disease (e.g., plague), poisoning, and habitat loss from agricultural practices and energy development.
To effectively manage the black-footed ferret in Utah, biologists must continue to monitor for diseases, determine the effect of agricultural control of prairie dogs, provide buffers to minimize the effect of human disturbance, and finally, participate in reintroduction efforts.
Black-footed ferrets live in underground prairie dog burrows and eat prairie dogs as their primary food source. Breeding occurs between the months of February and March. Males may mate with several females annually. Three to four young are typical, with females caring for the offspring. The young stay within the den until they are six weeks of age. By September or October, the young are completely independent. Fewer than half of the young survive to adulthood.