Wild Profile: Meet the black-footed ferret

A black-footed ferret crouched in prairie grass By Kerry Hargrove/Shutterstock

What’s the black-footed ferret’s claim to fame? This mammal has the distinction of being the only ferret species native to North America. (Pet ferrets are not native. Experts believe they likely descended from polecats in Europe.) It’s also—unfortunately—famous for its historically non-existent numbers in its prairie home range. Now, thanks to recovery efforts, there’s a Canadian wild ferret population in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. It’s not big, but it’s something.

Is the black-footed ferret endangered?

Yes. In fact, they’re considered one of the most endangered mammals in North America. In the 1970s, officials listed the species as “Extirpated”, that is, gone from a specific geographical location but not extinct. No one had spotted a ferret in the wild since 1937. Then, in 1981, a Wyoming farmer came across a small population (his dog led him to it—good puppy!). This launched a series of reintroduction programs across the continent.

What’s in the black-footed ferret’s diet? 

They may be small, but this ferret is scrappy enough to take on prairie dogs (not that much smaller). These rodents are the “obligate” carnivore’s main food source—they can make up to 90 per cent of a ferret’s diet—a factor that contributed to the black-footed ferret decline. Since prairie dogs dig burrows in fields where crops grow, there were plenty of reasons for folks to want them gone. And, even though native ferrets also eat mice, squirrels, and ground-nesting birds, losing such a huge part of their diets when many prairie dogs were exterminated had a big impact. (Actions have consequences, people! Happily, we know this now.)

Black-footed facts of life

Female ferrets don’t ovulate until right before breeding season. This starts as early as the end of January, but peaks in March and April. After about 45 days, a mama ferret gives birth to a litter—usually three or four kits. This happens underground, in a repurposed prairie dog burrow (another reason why the species is dependent on prairie dogs). Babies learn to be strong hunters by chasing each other, simulating attacks on pretend prey, and watching adult black-footed ferrets. Each one, teach one! We’re rooting for you, little ferrets.

Featured Video