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The black-footed ferret Mustela nigripes , also known as the American polecat  or prairie dog hunter ,  is a species of mustelid native to central North America. It is listed as endangered by the IUCN , because of its very small and restricted populations. First discovered by Audubon and Bachman in , the species declined throughout the 20th century, primarily as a result of decreases in prairie dog populations and sylvatic plague. It was declared extinct in until Lucille Hogg's dog brought a dead black-footed ferret to her door in Meeteetse, Wyoming in However, a captive breeding program launched by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service resulted in its reintroduction into eight western states and Mexico from to There are now over 1, mature, wild-born individuals in the wild across 18 populations, with four self-sustaining populations in South Dakota two , Arizona and Wyoming.
The black-footed ferret is roughly the size of a mink , and differs from the European polecat by the greater contrast between its dark limbs and pale body and the shorter length of its black tail-tip. In contrast, differences between the black-footed ferret and the steppe polecat of Asia are slight, to the point where the two species were once thought to be conspecific.
It is largely nocturnal and solitary, except when breeding or raising litters. Like its close cousin, the Asian steppe polecat with which it was once thought to be conspecific , the black-footed ferret represents a more progressive form than the European polecat in the direction of carnivory. The species appeared in the Great Basin and the Rockies by , years ago. The oldest recorded fossil find originates from Cathedral Cave, White Pine County, Nevada, and dates back to ,—, years ago.
This suggests that the black-footed ferret and prairie dogs did not historically have an obligate predator-prey relationship. The earliest reported occurrence of the species is from a late Illinoian deposit in Clay County , Nebraska , and is further recorded from Sangamonian deposits in Nebraska and Medicine Hat. Fossils have also been found in Alaska dating from the Pleistocene. The black-footed ferret has a long slender body with black outlines such as the feet, ears, parts of the face and its tail.
The forehead is arched and broad, and the muzzle is short. It has few whiskers , and its ears are triangular, short, erect and broad at the base. The neck is long and the legs short and stout. The toes are armed with sharp, very slightly arched claws. The feet on both surfaces are covered in hair, even to the soles, thus concealing the claws.
Its skull resembles that of polecats in its size, massiveness and the development of its ridges and depressions, though it is distinguished by the extreme degree of constriction behind the orbits where the width of the cranium is much less than that of the muzzle. Though similar in size to polecats, its attenuate body, long neck, very short legs, slim tail, large orbicular ears and close-set pelage is much closer in conformation to weasels and stoats.
Males measure — millimetres The base color is pale yellowish or buffy above and below. The top of the head and sometimes the neck is clouded by dark-tipped hairs. The face is crossed by a broad band of sooty black, which includes the eyes. The feet, lower parts of the legs, the tip of the tail and the preputial region are sooty-black. The area midway between the front and back legs is marked by a large patch of dark umber-brown, which fades into the buffy surrounding parts.
A small spot occurs over each eye, with a narrow band behind the black mask. The sides of the head and the ears are dirty-white in color.
The black-footed ferret is solitary, except when breeding or raising litters. Female black-footed ferrets have smaller home ranges than males. Home ranges of males may sometimes include the home ranges of several females. A female that was tracked from December to March occupied Her territory was overlapped by a resident male that occupied Movement of black-footed ferrets between prairie dog colonies is influenced by factors including breeding activity, season, sex, intraspecific territoriality, prey density, and expansion of home ranges with declining population density.
Temperature is positively correlated with distance of black-footed ferret movement. Nightly movement distance of black-footed ferrets averaged 0. Nightly activity areas of black-footed ferrets ranged from 1 to Males establish activity areas to maximize access to females, resulting in larger activity areas than those of females.
Prey density may account for movement distances. In areas of high prey density, black-footed ferret movements were nonlinear in character, probably to avoid predators.
Distance traveled between white-tailed prairie dog burrows from December to March averaged The reproductive physiology of the black-footed ferret is similar to that of the European polecat and the steppe polecat.
It is probably polygynous , based on data collected from home range sizes, skewed sex ratios, and sexual dimorphism. During copulation , the male grasps the female by the nape of the neck, with the copulatory tie lasting from 1. Litter size ranges from 1—5 kits. Kits first emerge above ground in July, at 6 weeks old. Intercolony dispersal of juvenile black-footed ferrets occurs several months after birth, from early September to early November.
Dispersal distances may be short or long. Near Meeteetse, Wyoming, 9 juvenile males and 3 juvenile females dispersed 1 to 4 miles 1. In western Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, black-footed ferrets historically associated with white-tailed prairie dogs and were forced to find alternate prey when white-tailed prairie dogs entered their four-month hibernation cycle. In South Dakota, black-footed ferrets associate with black-tailed prairie dogs.
Because black-tailed prairie dogs do not hibernate, little seasonal change in black-footed ferret diet is necessary. Mouse remains could not be identified to species; however, deer mice , northern grasshopper mice , and house mice were captured in snap-trap surveys.
Potential prey items included thirteen-lined ground squirrels , plains pocket gophers , mountain cottontails , upland sandpipers , horned larks , and western meadowlarks. Other food items included deer mice, sagebrush voles , meadow voles , mountain cottontails , and white-tailed jackrabbits. Water is obtained through consumption of prey. A study published in modeling metabolizable energy requirements estimated that one adult female black-footed ferret and her litter require approximately to 1, black-tailed prairie dogs per year or to 1, white-tailed prairie dogs per year for sustenance.
The historical range of the black-footed ferret was closely correlated with, but not restricted to, the range of prairie dogs Cynomys spp. Historical habitats of the black-footed ferret included shortgrass prairie, mixed-grass prairie, desert grassland, shrub steppe, sagebrush steppe,  mountain grassland, and semi-arid grassland.
High densities of prairie dog burrows provide the greatest amount of cover for black-footed ferrets. Black-footed ferret litters near Meeteetse, Wyoming, were associated with mounded white-tailed prairie dog burrows, which are less common than non-mounded burrows. Mounded burrows contain multiple entrances and probably have a deep and extensive burrow system that protects kits.
Primary causes of mortality include habitat loss, human-introduced diseases, and indirect poisoning from prairie-dog control measures. Males have higher rates of mortality than females because of longer dispersal distances when they are most vulnerable to predators. Given an obligate-dependence of black-footed ferrets on prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets are extremely vulnerable to prairie dog habitat loss.
Habitat loss results from agriculture, livestock use, and other development. Black-footed ferrets are susceptible to numerous diseases. They are fatally susceptible to canine distemper virus ,   introduced by striped skunks , common raccoons , red foxes , coyotes, and American badgers.
Black-footed ferrets are also susceptible to rabies, tularemia , and human influenza. They can directly contract sylvatic plague Yersinia pestis , and epidemics in prairie dog towns may completely destroy the ferrets' prey base.
Predators of black-footed ferrets include golden eagles , great horned owls , coyotes , American badgers , bobcats , prairie falcons , ferruginous hawks , and prairie rattlesnakes. Oil and natural gas exploration and extraction can have detrimental impacts on prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets.
Seismic activity collapses prairie dog burrows. Other problems include potential leakages and spills, increased roads and fences, increased vehicle traffic and human presence, and an increased number of raptor perching sites on power poles.
Traps set for coyotes, American mink , and other animals may harm black-footed ferrets. Native American tribes, including the Crow , Blackfoot , Sioux , Cheyenne , and Pawnee , used black-footed ferrets for religious rites and for food.
It is with great pleasure that we introduce this handsome new species; When we consider the very rapid manner in which every expedition that has crossed the Rocky Mountains, has been pushed forward, we cannot wonder that many species have been entirely overlooked The habits of this species resemble, as far as we have learned, those of [the European polecat].
It feeds on birds, small reptiles and animals, eggs, and various insects, and is a bold and cunning foe to the rabbits, hares, grouse, and other game of our western regions. For a time, the black-footed ferret was harvested for the fur trade , with the American Fur Company having received 86 ferret skins from Pratt, Chouteau, and Company of St. Louis in the late s. During the early years of predator control, black-footed ferret carcasses were likely discarded, as their fur was of low value.
This likely continued after the passing of the Endangered Species Act of , for fear of reprisals. The large drop in black-footed ferret numbers began during the s through to the s, as prairie dog numbers declined because of control programs and the conversion of prairies to croplands. Sylvatic plague , a disease caused by Yersinia pestis introduced into North America, also contributed to the prairie dog die-off, though ferret numbers declined proportionately more than their prey, thus indicating other factors may have been responsible.
Thereafter 7, acres of prairie dog colonies were treated with insecticide DeltaDust and 1, acres of black-footed ferret habitat were prophylactically dusted in Conata Basin in — Nevertheless, plague was proven in ferrets in May Since then each year 12, acres of their Conata Basin habitat is dusted and about 50— ferrets are immunized with plague vaccine.
Canine distemper devastated the Meeteetse ferret population in A live virus vaccine originally made for domestic ferrets killed large numbers of black-footed ferrets, thus indicating that the species is especially susceptible to distemper.
The black-footed ferret is an example of a species which benefits from strong reproductive science. This is one of the first examples of assisted reproduction contributing to conservation of an endangered species in nature.
The Toronto Zoo has bred hundreds, most of which were released into the wild. In May , the Canadian Species at Risk Act listed the black-footed ferret as being an extirpated species in Canada. The black-footed ferret was first listed as endangered in under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, and was relisted on January 4, , under the Endangered Species Act.