The Louisville zoo is celebrating its 25th anniversary of its black-footed ferret conservation program, which has reintroduced over 1,000 animals across 20 sites across the North American Plains. It is one of five programs that are working to release these animals back into the great Plain habitat. The black-footed ferret is a nocturnal animal that lives in solidarity across the Great Plains and rang across North America from Mexico to Canada. They inhabit the burrows of their prey, the prairie dog.
Government-sponsored prairie dog poisonings and habitat destruction have decimated the black-footed ferret population that once was estimated to have a population of 500,000 individuals. These animals were thought to be extinct in 1979 and was considered North America’s most critically endangered mammal. Their population was greatly reduced to a staggering 18 animals n 1987 by outbreaks of sylvatic plague and the canine distemper virus. These individuals were captured and placed in breeding programs in order to save their species.
Along with the National Zoo’s Science and Conservation Breeding Institute in Washington, D.C., the Phoenix Zoo, Cheyenne (Wyoming) Mountain Zoo, and the Toronto Zoo, captive breeding sites in Colorado established a breeding program in 1990 and since have helped to bring this species back from the brink of extinction. These programs implemented quarantine protocols so that there were no transmitted diseases between humans and the ferrets. The prerequisite for release is the ability to capture live prey. One of the greatest threats still remaining is that there are isolated prairie dog populations and habitat destruction that still threaten this species. These animals will continue to need human intervention to ensure their survival once released because they like to roam in pockets. This is why it is crucial that habitat restoration and protection projects occur in tandem with breeding programs.