Previously thought to be extinct, black-footed ferrets are one of the rarest mammals in the United States. Thanks to captive breeding programs, these ferrets are being bred and reintroduced to prairie habitats across the Western US, including Coyote Basin near Vernal.
And on October 9, 25 black-footed ferrets will be released at Coyote Basin to help restore a remote population of the rare mammals.
“Black footed ferrets, they’re really a highly specialized mammal. They have to have prairie dog to survive, and they live in prairie dog holes, and they eat prairie dogs for a majority of their diet, so if you don’t have prairie dogs you can’t have black-footed ferrets,” said Brian Maxfield, a wildlife conservation biologist for the Utah division of wildlife resources.
Prairie dogs are a keystone species, meaning many other species in prairie ecosystems depend on them for survival. Maxfield said the prairie dogs have nearly been wiped out due to habitat destruction and disease.
“Disease is the biggest problem that we have with black-footed ferret recovery. It hits the prairie dogs, wipes out the prairie dogs, but is also lethal to black-footed ferrets,” Maxfield said.
Sylvatic plague is an infectious bacterial disease transmitted to prairie dogs and ferrets by fleas. A recently developed vaccine has helped increase the survival rate of these animals, but the disease is still a continued threat to North American wildlife. The captive breeding program offers hope for the ferret’s survival.
Since 1986, 8500 ferret kits have been produced at captive breeding facilities across the West, and Utah has released kits every year since 1999.