The Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes) is a
small carnivorous North American mammal
closely related to the Steppe Polecat of Russia,
and a member of the diverse family Mustelidae
which also includes weasels, mink, polecats,
martens, otters, and badgers. It should not be
confused with the domesticated ferret.

The Black-footed Ferret is the most endangered
mammal in North America, according to the U. S.
Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). They became
extinct in the wild in Canada in 1937, and were classified as endangered in the U.S. in 1967. The last known wild population was taken into captivity in the mid-1980s, a few years after its accidental discovery in Wyoming.

Black-footed Ferrets are about 45 cm (18 inches) long, with a furry 15 cm (6 inch) tail, and they weigh roughly 1 kg (2 pounds). Like most members of the family, they are very low to the ground with an elongated body and very short legs. Their fur is white at the base but darkens at the tips, making them appear yellowish-brown overall, with black feet and tail-tip, and a distinctive black face mask. These blend in well with the prairie ecosystem in which they live. They do not change their habitat over the seasons.

Even before their numbers declined, Black-footed Ferrets were rarely seen: they weren't officially recognized as a species by scientists until 1851, following publication of a book by naturalist John James Audubon and Rev. John Bachman. Even then, their existence was questioned since no other Black-footed Ferrets were reported for over twenty years.

They are nocturnal hunters that are almost entirely dependent on a plentiful supply of prairie dogs to prey on, and shelter in a prairie dog burrow during the day. A single family of four Black-footed Ferrets eats about 250 prairie dogs each year and cannot survive without access to large colonies of them.

The loss of their prairie grassland habitat, the drastic reduction of prairie dog numbers (through both habitat loss and poisoning), and the effects of canine distemper and sylvatic plague (similar to bubonic plague) have all contributed to the near-extinction of the species during the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 1981, a very small population of about 130 animals was discovered near Meeteetse, Wyoming. Soon after discovery, the population began a rapid decline due to disease. By 1986, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department led a cooperative program to capture the 18 remaining animals and begin an intensive captive breeding program. At that time, the entire world population amounted to about 50 individuals in captivity.

U.S. federal and state agencies, in cooperation with private landowners, conservation groups, Native Americans, and North American zoos, have been actively reintroducing ferrets back into the wild since 1991. Beginning in Wyoming, reintroduction efforts have since expanded to sites in Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Chihuahua, Mexico. Proposed reintroduction sites have been identified in Canada.

As of 2005, conservationists estimate a total wild population of 400 black-footed ferrets in the United States. The recovery plan calls for the establishment of 10 or more separate, self-sustaining wild populations. Biologists hope to have 1500 Black-footed Ferrets established in the wild by the year 2010, with at least 30 breeding adults in each population. Meeting this objective would allow the conservation status of the species to be downgraded to threatened.


Mustelidae (from Latin mustela, weasel) is a family of carnivorous mammals. Many kinds of mustelids are maligned by some humans. However, Mustelidae is among the most successful and diverse families in order Carnivora. Mustelids range from the Least weasel, not much larger than a mouse, which can live in the high Arctic; to the wolverine, a 50 pound (23 kg) animal that can dispatch reindeer, crush bones as thick as the femur of a moose to get at the marrow, and has been known to drive bears from kills; to the ratel, which has a unique symbiosis with a bird called the honey guide bird; to the tropical, largely fruit-eating tayra; to the aquatic otters. Other mustelids include mink, badgers, weasels, polecats, zorilla, and martens.

Mustelidae is one of the most species-rich families in order Carnivora, as well as one of the older ones. Mustelid-like forms have existed for the past 40 million years and roughly coincided with the appearance of rodents. Several members of the family are aquatic to varying degrees, ranging from the semi-aquatic mink, the river otters, and the highly aquatic sea otter. The Sea otter is also the only non-primate mammal known to use a tool while foraging. It uses "anvil" stones to crack open the shellfish that form a significant part of its diet. It is a "keystone species," keeping its prey populations in balance so some do not outcompete the others and they do not destroy the kelp in which they live.

Just as otters are adapted to swimming, several groups of badgers are adapted to digging. Many species of badgers and otters have evolved social groupings.

The fisher, a type of marten, has a unique system to kill porcupines: it attacks the porcupine's face until the animal is so weak it can be flipped over, giving the fisher access to the porcupine's vulnerable belly. In some areas porcupines form as much as a quarter of the fisher's diet.

The Least weasel, adapted for eating small rodents such as mice and voles, reproduces up to three times a year (unusual for carnivores, who typically reproduce annually) to take advantage of the fluctuations in rodent populations. Because of its small body size and fast metabolism it must eat every few hours to survive, so it runs through multiple cycles of sleep and wakefulness every day.

Mustelids also have some of the most exquisite furs—the mink, the sable (a type of marten) and the ermine (stoat) are all members of the family. This has led to the skinning of these animals, especially in the past. One species, the Sea mink (Mustela macrodon) of New England and Canada, was driven to extinction by fur trappers around the same time that the Passenger pigeon was declining. Its appearance and habits are almost unknown because no one seems to have preserved even a single complete specimen, let alone conducted a systematic study. Today, some mustelids are in trouble for other reasons. The Sea otter, who almost shared the fate of the Sea mink, now risks being destroyed by oil spills and the side effects of overfishing; the Black-footed ferret, a relative of the European polecat, suffers from the disappearance of the American prairie; and the wolverine is in a long, slow decline because of habitat destruction and persecution.

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