Photo: Adult male black-footed ferret

With its long, slender body, the black-footed ferret easily searches the burrows and tunnels of its favorite prey, the prairie dog.

Photograph courtesy Jeff Vanuga/Corbis

Map

Map: Black footed ferret range

Black-Footed Ferret Range

Fast Facts

Type:
Mammal
Diet:
Carnivore
Average life span in captivity:
12 years
Size:
Head and body, 15 to 20 in (38 to 50 cm); Tail, 4.25 to 5 in (11 to 13 cm)
Group name:
Business
Protection status:
Endangered
Did you know?
Ferrets are nocturnal, sleeping up to 21 hours per day and hunting prairie dogs primarily during the night.
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Black footed ferret compared with adult man

The black-footed ferret could also be called the black-eyed ferret because of the distinctive "stick-em up" mask that adorns its face. The tan ferrets also have black markings on their feet, legs, and tail tip.

This animal's long slender body, like that of a weasel, enables it to crawl in and out of the holes and dwellings of its primary prey—the prairie dog.

Though black-footed ferrets sometimes eat squirrels, mice, and other rodents, prairie dogs are essential to their survival, making up the majority of the ferret diet. These voracious predators hunt them in their own burrows, and take shelter in abandoned prairie dog dwellings.

Many prairie dog towns became ghost towns as populations underwent a 20th century decline. Farmers and ranchers (with government assistance) eliminated many prairie dogs because their underground complexes are destructive to fields. In the process, the black-footed ferret was nearly wiped out. In 1987, 18 animals were captured in the wild to begin a captive breeding program, which has since reintroduced ferrets into promising western habitats.

Ferret reintroduction efforts have been mixed. Populations need viable prairie dog towns to survive, but they also face threats from predators such as golden eagles, owls, and coyotes. Reintroduced animals lack some survival skills so their mortality rate is high. Diseases are another major threat to prairie dog towns and to the black-footed ferrets that depend upon them.

These solitary animals live alone, and in May and June females give birth to litters of one to six kits that they raise alone. The young are able to survive on their own by fall.

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