A small, cat-sized carnivore with masked eyes has returned from the brink of extinction.
The black-footed ferret was once found throughout the Midwestern plains of North America. Catastrophic habitat loss and the near eradication of prairie dogs by farmers were blamed for their demise, as they eat almost nothing except prairie dogs. Fifty years ago, scientists believed the black-footed ferret was globally extinct.
Then in 1981 a farm dog in Wyoming dropped the body of a dead black-footed ferret at it’s master’s door, setting the scientific world on fire. News of this last surviving colony of the ferrets spread, and US wildlife biologists quickly trapped seven of the animals and launched a captive breeding program.
By 1991 small groups of black-footed ferrets were returned to the wild. Fragile populations are currently living in scattered pockets of grassland habitat in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and a few other Midwest ranges.
Now they are set to make a comeback in Canada, where they haven’t been seen since the 1930’s.
A plan for an “experimental reintroduction” of the black-footed ferret was filed in March with the Species At Risk Office of Environment Canada.
“We’ve been planning this for at least four years,” said Parks Canada’s Joanne Tuckwell, the Winnipeg-based project co-ordinator and lead author of the recovery plan. “We’re hoping that it’ll be approved and ferrets will be reintroduced this fall.”
Pending the results of public consultation and a series of federal approvals, up to 50 ferrets drawn from captive-breeding populations in the U.S. and the Toronto Zoo would be transplanted to Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park.
The large open spaces of Grasslands Park are also home to a large population of black-tailed prairie dogs. Living amongst the prairie dogs are burrowing owls – both species of conservation concern. Roaming throughout the park are badgers, coyotes and a reintroduced population of plains bison. Native prairie birds are everywhere.
Visiting Grasslands National Park is truly taking a step back in time – it is near the top of my favorite Canadian places to visit. Standing near a prairie dog colony, watching burrowing owls, badgers, bison and various prairie birds, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to see a covered wagon coming over the hill. It’s a microcosm of what the enormous Great Plains must have looked like to the original settlers.
With the introduction of the small black-footed ferret, the park will have re-created an entire prairie ecosystem. It is an awe inspiring place, and a visible sign that changes can be made before it’s too late, if the will to do so exists. Endangered animals and spaces may have a future after all.