Northern Cheyenne Tribe Helps Save Black-Footed Ferrets

January 17, 2011

By: Nick Engelfried 

One of the most endangered mammal species in North America, the black-footed ferret, is slowly making a comeback on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana.  Over the last few weeks a group of black-footed ferrets newly introduced from captivity have been getting adjusted to life on the reservation, which is one of just eighteen places where this species now exists in the wild.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Northern Cheyenne tribal government, and conservation groups like Defenders of Wildlife are monitoring the ferret population in hopes it will continue to grow and eventually become self-supporting.

Tens of thousands of black-footed ferrets once lived in the prairies of the Great Plains, where they coexisted with species like prairie dogs and vast herds of American bison.  Specially adapted to feed on prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets depend on these burrowing rodents for survival.  During the twentieth century, destruction of their prairie habitat, poisoning of prairie dogs, and the spread of non-native diseases decimated black-footed ferret populations until the species was extinct in the wild.  By 1986 there were only eighteen black-footed ferrets in the world, all of them in captivity.  Fortunately a successful captive breeding program was launched, which eventually allowed researchers and conservationists to begin re-introducing the ferrets into the wild.

Since the early 1980s black-footed ferrets have received protections under the Endangered Species Act, giving the US Fish and Wildlife Service an imperative to help restore the species.  After years of conservation, ferret populations now exist in eighteen places scattered across the Great Plains on public, private, and tribal land.  Today the number of black-footed ferrets is far higher than the eighteen individuals originally saved in 1986.  Still there are fewer than a thousand members of the species in the wild, and continued conservation efforts are needed for its recovery.

Black-footed ferrets were first introduced to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2008, and the support of the tribal government has allowed a small population to become established.  “The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is helping bring black-footed ferrets back from the brink,” said Lacy Gray from Defenders of Wildlife, after a successful reintroduction effort last month.   Conservation efforts include protection of the prairie dogs the predatory ferrets rely on for food.  A total of 10,000 acres of tribal land has been set aside as protected habitat for the ferrets and their rodent food source.

While prairie dogs and black footed ferrets on protected land are safe from hunting and poisoning, other threats to their survival persist.  Perhaps most alarming is sylvatic plague, a disease accidentally introduced to North America which affects both ferrets and prairie dogs.  The plague spreads from one animal to another via flea bites, so prairie dog towns are treated with dustings of flea poison when researchers find a local outbreak of the disease.

In other parts of the country, the survival of black-footed ferrets continues to depend on the health of prairie dog populations.  Several prairie dog species are themselves endangered or threatened, their recovery impeded by the fact that prairie dog burrows are often seen as a nuisance by landowners.  Climate change is an additional threat to prairie dog populations and the ferrets that depend on them.  A warmer, dryer climate in the Great Plains may lead to more frequent droughts and prairie fires, making it more difficult for prairie dogs to survive.

While the future of the black-footed ferret is still far from certain, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation population for now has a safe habitat to live in thanks to policies of the tribal government and the work of conservation groups.  As ferrets recently released onto tribal land grow used to life in the wild, they are embarking on the next stage of a long journey or a species once on the verge of extinction. 

Photo credit: Brian Gratwicke

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