Return of the masked bandit: the black-footed ferret
The ferret snarled loudly, its needle-like teeth flashing in the fading light, as I fumbled, somewhat hesitatingly, I’ll admit, to open its cat-kennel carrying-case.
Finally, it was out of the kennel, but not yet out of its temporary shelter — a drainage tube!
We had back-packed across the prairie at sunset, captured in a gorgeous shot by Troy Fleece.
Reluctant to come out, the feisty ferret finally scurried down a long, deep burrow, soon to surprise a prairie dog or two, no doubt. Finally, after a 70-year absence from Canada, black-footed ferrets were once again prowling the prairies!
Recently, CBC’s The Nature of Things aired an excellent documentary, covering the release of ferrets over the last two years. Enjoy the breathtaking video and great self-triggered photos of wildlife outside a prairie dog burrow.
Smaller than pet cats, ferrets are members of the weasel family, along with species such as ermine and otter. With strong “face-mask” striping, black-footed ferrets are specially adapted to the North American prairies and are unique in nearly always preying upon black-tailed prairie dogs for food. Prairies dogs – not to be confused with ground squirrels or gophers – are only found in Canada in extreme southern Saskatchewan, principally in Grasslands National Park.
Led by Parks Canada, the first reintroduction was undertaken by staff from a dozen conservation groups, agencies and zoos – among them WWF staff from Canada and U.S.
Emily Giles and I were WWF-Canada’s lucky representatives at the first release. WWF had sponsored three decades of work on endangered prairie wildlife, including recovery efforts for the ferrets worth over $125,000. Their habitat, the shared plains spanning the Canada-U.S. border, is a global conservation priority, sometimes called the “Serengeti of North America”. A decade of work by all these agencies and WWF led to the historic release of 34 captive-bred animals in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, in October 2009.
Once thought to be extinct globally, mostly from poisoning intended for ground squirrels and prairie dogs, ferrets were discovered on a remote ranch in Wyoming in 1981. Now more than 6,500 have been raised in captivity and released on sites across its former range in the west-central U.S. and northern Mexico. Some ferrets in the Canadian release were raised by the Toronto Zoo, and then trained to hunt wild prairie dogs in a ferret “boot camp” in Colorado.
One of the people who verified the ferrets’ rediscovery in the wild in the 1980s was WWF’s own Steve Forrest, the Manager of Restoration Science for the Northern Great Plains program of WWF-US, and an international representative on Canada’s ferret recovery team.
“Cross-border co-operation is absolutely essential to the recovery of the ferret and many other endangered wildlife species,” Steve Forrest told me. “Nature doesn’t recognize the borders between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, so our conservation efforts must stretch across those boundaries if we are to successfully restore North America’s threatened grassland ecosystems.”
The Saskatchewan release in 2009 was the first in Canada and now restores the ferret to all three countries of its former North American range. In 2010, surveys and some additional releases were undertaken. As the CBC documentary shows, best news of all was the sighting of a female ferret with three kits!
WWF-Canada’s President, Gerald Butts pointed out the greater significance of the ferret project. “Reintroduction of a species once thought to be extinct, like these ferrets, give us hope that wildlife – and our planet – can be restored. We salute Parks Canada and all the partners involved for their extraordinary efforts and for their recognition of WWF’s unique cross-border role in this conservation success story. Whether the challenge is tackling climate change or saving endangered species, we can succeed when we act quickly to do what needs to be done. The release is testament to what is possible when we focus on solutions and we don’t give up hope.”
After the first ferret was released, the crowd of media, local officials, First Nations reps and students moved on to the next release site. Emily and I stayed back, and within minutes, Canada’s first reintroduced ferret popped its head and neck out of the burrow to look around, so-called “telescoping” or “periscoping”.
Emily’s photo of that moment is the first documented evidence of the return of black-footed ferrets to the Canadian prairie since the 1930s!