U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Date of this Version



Imperiled: The Encyclopedia of Conservation, Volume 3, pp. 458-470



U.S. government work


There may be few stories in the annals of wildlife management that are as dramatic as the near demise and comeback of the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes). Endemic only to North America, this charming little carnivore found only in the continent’s central grasslands was hardly known to science until the mid-20th century. By then, vast colonies of the prey it depended on for food and shelter, the prairie dog (Cynomys spp.), had been wiped out through disease (sylvatic plague) and an agricultural industry with little tolerance for burrowing and grazing rodents. At its low point, the species’ fate would come down to 18 remaining ferrets and a scientific gamble that humans could intervene to save a species on the very brink of extinction. With heroic efforts by federal, state, and private scientists, immediate extinction was forestalled, and a comeback effort mounted. Like so many endangered species stories, the ferret’s tale is a story of tragedy, luck, science, and the acts of people that will determine its ultimate fate. Understanding the challenges going forward for the ferret requires an understanding of the natural history and ecology of black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs, diseases and disease management, and the political landscape, which we present here. The future for black-footed ferrets remains unclear. Ultimately we will need to summon the efforts of conservation biologists, policy makers, and the agricultural industry to determine if ferrets will continue to exist as a valued and unique part of North America’s natural heritage.