December 29, 2004

Endangered Ferrets Make Comeback

PHOENIX (AP) -- Endangered black-footed ferrets are reproducing more and surviving longer in the wild in Arizona than they have since recovery efforts began nearly a decade ago, wildlife biologists say.

Biologists found 28 ferrets in the last two years in Arizona that were born in the wild - more than double the number found during any two-year period since a reintroduction program began in 1996.

"The success in Arizona is great," said Mike Lockhart, a ferret recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "If it continues along the same path, it could quickly become a self-sustaining population."

While the yellowish-brown, wiry animals appear to be doing well in Arizona, drought and the plague have devastated populations elsewhere in the West.

Biologists thought the black-footed ferret was extinct in the late 1970s, but about 120 of the nocturnal prowlers were found in the mid-1980s in Wyoming.

One reason for the low numbers is that the government killed thousands of prairie dogs - the ferrets' main food source - during the last century because they were considered pests.

"It came very, very close to extinction," Lockhart said. "It was at one time the most endangered mammal in North America, and it was undoubtedly one of the most endangered in the world."

In 1985, after disease killed most of the remaining ferrets, the last 18 were captured to start a breeding program, said Zen Mocarski, spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Now their offspring live at reintroduction sites in the United States and Mexico, including one in northwest Arizona near Seligman.

The only viable wild population in the country is in South Dakota, Lockhart said. Two other populations in South Dakota and one in Wyoming are close to being self-sustaining.

There are between 400 to 600 black-footed ferrets in the wild plus about 400 in captivity, Lockhart said. They remain threatened by the loss of habitat and prairie dogs.

Related to weasels, the ferrets can grow to be a couple feet long and weigh about 2 1/2 pounds. They have black face masks, black feet and black-tipped tails. In the wild, the ferrets spend most of their time underground.


On the Net:

Black-Footed Ferret: http://www.blackfootedferret.org/