Dorothy is a Master Gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of
several books. Michael is a landscape/nature photographer in NM.
Black-footed ferrets were feared extinct in the 1970’s until a rancher’s dog
in Wyoming came home with a dead one in its mouth, presumably killed by the
dog. That event led to the discovery of several more of the animals living
Does the Prairie Dog Stand a Chance?
About 90% of the black-footed ferret’s diet consists of prairie dogs. Animal
lovers find it hard to accept the fact that sometimes one animal is only able
to exist at the expense of another. Such is the case of the black-footed
ferret and the cute prairie dog which are cousins to the squirrels in
backyards all across America.
To make matters worse, the wild ferrets are not the only animals that prey
upon the small, burrowing prairie dog: coyotes, bobcats, badgers, golden
eagles, and prairie falcons are also a threat. Then there are diseases like
the bubonic plague which entered North America via rats aboard European ships
in the 1800s. The illness spread quickly through wild mammal populations,
including black-tailed prairie dogs of the northern Great Plains. The bubonic
plague is still rampant in some areas, and when it does strike a prairie dog,
it usually wipes out the entire colony.
There are only five species of prairie dogs—black-tailed, white-tailed,
Gunnison’s, Utah, and Mexican. They are only found on the continent of North
America. They are **** very social animals that live in close-knit family
groups called “coteries,” which will usually contain an adult male, one (or
more) adult female, and their offspring. The coteries are grouped together
into wards (or neighborhoods), and several wards together are referred to as
either a colony or a town.
Shoot them or save them, hate them or love them, there’s little middle
ground where prairie dogs are concerned. The government poisons them,
developers bulldoze them, aficionados rescue them, while ranchers,
complaining that they take the grass from grazing cows’ mouths, brand them
— Michael Long, in an Article in National Geographic Magazine
Ferrets and Ranchers Vs. Prairie Dogs
Over the past century, prairie dog and black-footed ferret populations in the
wild have drastically declined due to habitat loss, poisoning, and devastating
outbreaks of sylvatic plague.
Between the ranchers and the black-footed ferrets, the prairie dogs of the
plains may not have a fighting chance; the ferrets depend upon them almost
solely for food and housing, and the ranchers depend upon the cattle with
which they compete for forage. It’s difficult to lay the blame in anyone’s
But, the black-footed ferrets are one of the most endangered species on the
planet, and as recently as the 1970s, they were thought to be extinct. In
1981, a colony of the ferrets was discovered in Wyoming, but that colony was
almost completely wiped out by canine distemper. Those that survived were
rescued for a captive-breeding program which, to date, has resulted in over
7,000 young black-footed ferrets.
The ferrets kill the prairie dogs and claim their burrowed-tunnel housing as
A wild ferret catching its prey, a prairie dog, which is a biological relative
of groundhogs, chipmunks, marmots and woodchucks. There are only five species
of prairie dogs – black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah and Mexican.
Can the Black-Footed Ferret and the Prairie Dog Both Survive in the Wild?
A wild ferret can eat up to about 100 prairie dogs in a single year. According
to defenders.org, scientists estimate that a healthy population of ferrets
would require more than 10,000 acres of prairie dogs in order for them to
survive on a long-term basis.
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Because their habitat has declined over the years, there are very few clusters
of prairie dogs that remain today that could meet that criterion. The
conservation of any and all healthy prairie dog colonies is essential for the
continued existence of the black-footed ferret. But then, what about the
continued existence of the prairie dogs? The prairie dog colonies have been
reduced to less than 5% of the area they once occupied, due to habitat loss
and interference by some humans who consider them to be vermin.
Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group established to protect native
animals and their habitat, and some of their conservation partners recently
relocated hundreds of prairie dogs to a protected spot in the middle of the
Thunder Basin National Grassland in eastern Wyoming. The relocation was to
keep the animals from being either poisoned or shot by farmers attempting to
keep them off their land and to restore 18,000 acres of prairie dog colonies.
Prairie Dogs Praying for Survival
Photography by Larry Jernigan
Keep in Mind
Domestic ferrets are unable to exist in the wild, so if you see a ferret in
your neighborhood, it is someone’s pet that has gotten out of its cage or has
been turned loose in the wild by its owner. Please call your local animal
control and let them capture the ferret for adoption. If left alone in the
neighborhood, the ferret will most certainly die.
Black-Footed Ferrets Vs. Domestic Ferrets
The major difference in black-footed ferrets and pet ferrets are that they are
different species (although related). The black-footed ferrets (Mustela
nigripes), in fact, are the only ferret species that is native to North
America, and they exist in the wild only in or near prairie dog colonies.
Domesticated pet ferrets (Mustela putorius furo) descended from European
ferrets, and they have been domesticated for well over 2,000 years.
Pet ferrets usually have longer fur than the wild ferrets, and they can be
many different colors that can range from white to black and many colors in
between. Black-footed ferrets are always the same—a tan color throughout the
body with black on their feet, mask, and tail tip. They also have a black
nose, but most pet ferrets have a pink nose.
If you own a pet ferret, you have probably noticed that your pet sleeps when
you sleep and adjusts pretty much to any schedule you set forth regarding
eating, etc., Black-footed ferrets, however, are normally nocturnal because
the nighttime is a great time to sneak up on a sleeping prairie dog. It is
rare to see a black-footed ferret during the daytime.
Black-footed ferrets are loners and are very territorial, ready to do whatever
is necessary to keep other black-footed ferrets out of their hunting grounds.
The only time you will see two of them together is during their breeding
If you’ve ever owned a pet ferret, you already know that these lovable bandits
love to play with each other, although during the times they don’t appear to
be getting along they are actually just “play fighting.” If you see two black-
footed ferrets fighting, it’s the real thing.
- www.defenders.org (information retrieved from website on 5/16/2018
- Line, Les (1997). Phantom of the Plains – North America’s Black-Footed Ferret , Wildlife Conservation Magazine, August 1997
- Long, Michael E. (1998), The Vanishing Prairie Dog , National Geographic Magazine, April 1998 (Pp 116-130)
© 2018 Mike and Dorothy McKenney