Black-footed Ferret coming back

The Black-footed Ferret is another animal which has barely—just barely—escaped disappearing altogether from the North American landscape.
There are only four species of ferret in the world, and I would guess that most of you reading this have never come into contact with a ferret of any kind.
Well, ferrets are members of the weasel family. They are quite similar to weasels, but bigger.
Long, slim bodies, very sharp teeth, and a strong desire to kill anything that may turn out to be good to eat.
There is one ferret which is fairly well-known, and that is the Domestic Ferret. When I was young, I used to keep a ferret as a pet. It also had a very useful characteristic.
We kept a lot of chickens at the time, and had four henhouses. Rats used to bother us a lot—killing chickens and so on.
So, we would let the ferret go down one of the rat holes in the floor of the henhouse and then wait outside with big sticks or baseball bats.
The rats were terrified, and would rush out, where wee would try to kill them with the sticks. It was a bit of fun, and it often whiled away a Saturday afternoon.
Ferrets are really quite friendly little animals. I used to carry one around in the pocket of my jacket. He was quite happy in there, and always was happy to see me when he came out.
But his column is about the Black-footed Ferret (Mustela inigris). He is about two feet long, weighs about a kilogram (two pounds), and has a sort of furry tail.
Most of him is yellowish brown, but he has black feet (which you might have guessed). The tip of his tail also is black, and he has a prominent black mask.
This little animal is quite specialized. For one thing, he is almost totally nocturnal. These ferrets do almost all of their travelling, searching, and feeding at night, so you do not get to see them very often in daylight.
Actually, the famous Audubon trapped one, one time, and nobody would believe him.
The diet of the Black-footed Ferret is quite simple—prairie dogs. They will eat other animals, like other kinds of ground squirrels, mice, and voles, but, by far, their major source of food is the prairie dog.
It is estimated that a ferret easily will consume 100 prairie dogs a year.
As you might also guess, these animals always were found where the prairie dogs were. That covered the great plains of Canada and the United States—the grasslands of North America.
They not only ate all the “dogs” they could catch, but they lived in the burrows, as well.
Why did they almost disappear entirely? Well, when the prairie dog population declined, so did that of the ferrets.
You might remember that, years ago, there was a bounty on prairie dogs in both Canada and the U.S. If a boy could bring in a dozen prairie dog tails, he could get a nickel.
So, a lot of kids in Saskatchewan and Wyoming filled their Saturdays shooting the “little varmits” so they could raise a few cents for a pop or some candy.
There also was widespread poisoning of prairie dogs in both countries.
But the major thing that drove down the population of prairie dogs was the invention, in 1837, of the steel plow. This made much more of the land available for cultivation and, in the process, destroyed hundreds of thousands of prairie dog burrows.
You can credit John Deere for that.
Now the original population of these little animals, the Black-footed Ferret, was estimated to be about half-a-million in all of North America. The loss of habitat reduced the population to about two percent of the original.
But that’s not all. Some diseases, like distemper from dogs, also did a lot of them in. And believe it or not, remnants of the plague, from Europe, took quite a toll. Several things were acting against the ferrets.
The last ferrets were found in Canada in 1937, and the Black-footed Ferret was declared to be extinct in 1979 in all of North America.
Then a very small population was found in Wyoming. Some were captured and a captive breeding program was started, which included the Toronto Zoo. This program has been going on ever since.
By 2008, groups of ferrets had been introduced in 18 different places in the States.
Some 34 of these animals were released in Saskatchewan in 2009, and some young ones have been seen there.
They also have been released in the Dakotas and in Mexico, as well as other parts of Canada.
By 2010, biologists were hoping to have about 10 or more colonies underway, with about 30 adults in each one. I don’t know if that plan has been successful or not.
If it has, it will mean that the population is gaining ground, and the Black-footed Ferret now will be “threatened” instead of “endangered.”
Why do we care about this little weasel? Well, our history about wildlife in North America is not very good. We have destroyed the whole population of many species—some of which numbered in the billions.
We have done a pretty good job of returning the buffalo to North America, and have stopped the destruction of many other species.
Why not this ferret, which doesn’t do anybody any harm and keeps the population of prairie dogs under control.
We have a lot to do to make up for the immense destruction we have caused to the environment of our planet.

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