Black-Footed Ferrets

Black-Footed Ferrets are also known as American Polecats and have been considered extinct in 1979. But they have made an incredible recovery in the last 30 years and are off the “extinct” list and back on the “endangered” list. More than that, the first successful clone of an endangered species was introduced to the public in February 2021. It’s a female Black-Footed Ferret named Elizabeth Ann.

In this article, we’ll talk about Black-Footed Ferrets, their amazing recovery from extinction, and where they can be found today.

What Does a Black-Footed Look Like (Color, Size, General Description)

Black-Footed Ferrets are the only species of ferrets that are native to America. The ferrets that are found everywhere come from the European Polecat and have been domesticated for hundreds of years. On the other hand, the Black-Footed Ferret doesn’t come from the European Polecat, but it comes from the same species from which the European Polecat descended as well.

These ferrets get their name from their black feet. Their legs are short and stout but their body has the usual slender allure as other ferrets and polecats. Besides their feet, their ears, tail, and parts of their face, their body is also outlined with black. You will also notice that their forehead is quite broad and arched, while their muzzle is short and has very few whiskers.

The American Polecat’s ears are always triangular, short, broad at the base, and pointed upwards. They also have a long neck and their short legs end with sharp and slightly arched claws. The feet are covered in fur and since even the soles have fur on them the claws are very well-concealed. And the head of these ferrets is very similar to that of a polecat.

These ferrets have a pale yellow as their base color and the top of their head is clouded by dark-tipped fur. Their back feet can be entirely black or only halfway black and the upper parts are a bit lighter. They also have a small spot over each eye and a narrow band behind the black mask.

Males are slightly larger than the females and they stand between 19.7 to 21.0in in body length and between 4.5 to 5.0in in tail length, while the females are 10% smaller. The captive-bred ferrets used to bring back the population from near extinction were slightly smaller than their wild counterparts.

Typical Behavior In The Wild

Usually, ferrets are known to live in groups named businesses and they can get very depressed if they live alone. But that’s not the case when it comes to the Black-Footed Ferrets. They actually prefer solidarity and can get very violent when another ferret comes into their territory. Despite their small size, ferret fights are very violent as they are equipped with excellent teeth, claws, and a lot of speed.

The only exception is when it’s the breeding season and it’s time to raise the litters. This is when the male comes looking for females and can have numerous females living in the same territory as him. But if males try to approach said females and come into another male’s territory, a violent fight is sure to happen. The mating ritual is every bit as gruesome as the one made by any other ferret or polecat.

Males tend to have big territories and females smaller ones. This is why the territories of various females can overlap with the territory of a male. Most of the time, adult females occupy the exact same territory every single year. The mating usually occurs around February and March and Black-Footed Ferrets are typically polygynous. This means a male can impregnate numerous females each spring.

Similar to other polecats, the American polecat is crepuscular, which means that it’s most active from dusk to midnight and from around 4 AM to mid-morning. These creatures quite active during winter as well, but if the cold is too much for them, they can remain in their burrows for up to 6 consecutive days. Similar to the European polecat, the American polecat also lives in burrows made by rabbits and other similar creatures.

Black-Footed Ferrets can travel great distances for food, which is why they spend quite a bit of time resting and regaining their energy. When they are ready at dusk and dawn, they start looking for prey and are very determined to go as far as they need to. They’re also good at avoiding predators. But they generally don’t have a longer lifespan than 3-4 years.

Black-Footed Ferrets and Their Diet

Black-Footed Ferrets are very important to the ecosystem as they are excellent at controlling prairie dogs. They’re also a good food source themselves to other creatures, such as owls. But since their diet consists of around 90% of prairie dogs, they will always have the potential to go extinct if the population of prairie dogs keeps declining. This is one of the main reasons they almost went extinct in the first place as well.

The other 10% of their diet consists of other small rodents and Lagomorphs. And this is mainly because some prairie dogs go into hibernation every year, while the American polecats do not. This forces them to sometimes find alternative food if they can’t get to the sleeping prairie dogs. They are great hunters, which means that they can also catch a wide range of birds and fast small animals.

Their exact diet depends on where they live. Throughout history, Black-Footed Ferrets are known to hunt white-tailed prairie dogs in Western Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. Around these areas, alternative prey included mice and voles found near streams. White-tailed prairie dogs are the ones that hibernate four months a year. The other types of prairie dogs do not, including the black-tail prairie dogs.

In South Dakota, there are numerous populations of black-tail prairie dogs, which do not hibernate. This means that they rarely go after other types of animals. But they can always hunt deer mice, house mice, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, horned larks, western meadowlarks, etc. Black-Footed Ferrets are fast hunters and they are powerful enough to easily catch up and overpower white-tailed jackrabbits as well.

A female and her litter will need around 474 to 1,421 black-tailed prairie dogs per year to live comfortably. And if they hunt white-tailed prairie dogs, they will need between 412 to 1,246 of them.

Where Can You Find Black-Footed Ferrets?

Black-Footed Ferrets used to thrive pretty much anywhere prairie dog colonies were in very high numbers. Throughout history, they’ve been known to live anywhere from southern Canada to northern Mexico. But as humans took more and more of the natural habitat of prairie dogs, the American polecats had no source of food and were driven near extinction by a plague.

Today, after their miraculous return and countless conservation attempts from the United States Fish and Wildlife Services, they start growing in numbers more and more. You’ll be able to spot them in the wild as they were reintroduced in various parts of their former range. This includes Arizona, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming.

Prairie dogs also had more than enough time to repopulate these areas, offering these new American polecats more than enough hunting ground. The captive-bred specimens adapted to the wildlife very well and now there are more than 2,000 wild-born Black-Footed Ferrets that thrive in the wilderness. There are also various populations of ferrets that are completely self-sustaining, and more are getting there as well. The others are still helped here and there by humans.

When it comes to getting a Black-Footed Ferret as a pet, you will need a lot of luck with that. You’ll have to make sure your area allows ferrets as pets, then you need to check if you’re even allowed to own a ferret that barely came back from the brick of extinction. And if the answers are positive, then the real struggle begins as you need to find a trustworthy breeder.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is The Black-Footed Ferret Endangered?

The Black-Footed Ferrets are an endangered species and it’s the only species of ferret that is native to America. They were thought to be extinct in 1979 but they made a fabulous return in the past years thanks to all the conservation efforts made by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, these ferrets are off the extinct list and are back on the endangered one.

Why are black-footed ferrets important?

Black-Footed Ferrets are a very important part of a healthy ecosystem. They are the most efficient animals when it comes to prairie dog population control, and they can serve as a great food source for owls and other creatures as well. Despite having a lifespan of only around 3 years, Black-Footed Ferrets help keep the balance in place in an ecosystem.

What is the lifespan of a black-footed ferret?

Black-Footed Ferrets live somewhere between 1 to 3 years in the wilderness. This is because they have their own predators as well, but also because some prairie dogs might transfer some of their diseases to the ferret. In captivity, the lifespan is extended to somewhere between 4 and 6 years.

Can you have a black-footed ferret as a pet?

Black-Footed Ferrets are incredibly hard to find and you need a very special license to own one. This includes a research license. Otherwise, you will most likely not be able to find one to adopt, and keeping a wild-caught Black-Footed Ferret in captivity is illegal. If you rescue an injured kit (ferret baby), you should contact Animal Services.