BILLINGS — Life in the animal kingdom is tough, and bouncing back from the edge of extinction is even tougher. But that’s exactly what the black-footed ferret is trying to do with a little help from animal biologists.
"These animals genetically were down to seven animals. Only seven animals left that were breeding and so to know that their numbers are bouncing back, there’s about 300-400 out in the wild right now. It’s a true success story. We released 18 of these incredibly endangered, one of the most endangered animals in North America, back to their natural habitat and it was an amazing experience," said Jeff Ewelt, executive director at ZooMontana.
Prior to 1981, most biologists believed the black-footed ferret was extinct, but that all changed one day on the Hog family ranch near Meeteetse when a dog named Shep made quite the discovery.
"We ended up releasing these guys in two different areas. They’re actually neighboring ranches, the Pitchfork Ranch and the Hog Family Ranch. And the Hog Family Ranch is where they were rediscovered originally. The family's dog back in ’81, Shep, rediscovered the ferret species and actually he had killed the animal and brought it back to the house, and the family didn’t think it looked quite right. So they took it to a taxidermist, and the taxidermist said, 'hold on, I think this is a black-footed ferret,' and that’s when the discovery took place," added Ewelt.
That discovery gave the ferrets a second chance. In 2016, Wyoming wildlife officials reintroduced these ferrets outside of Meeteetse, but a plague outbreak wiped out most of the animals.
"Plague was introduced in the U.S., and it started sweeping across the West, which resulted in a decline in the ferret’s food source, as well as plague, which also caused a decline in prairie dogs, but black-footed ferrets are also susceptible to plague," said Zack Walker, nongame wildlife supervisor with Wyoming Fish & Game.
The plague isn't the only threat to the ferrets, however.
"The plague, which is amazing to even talk about, but the plague wipes out prairie populations, which will ultimately lead to the demise of ferret population because 90% of what the black-footed ferrets eat is prairie dogs. So, the plague is number one, but number two is genetic diversity. And it's a real problem with black-footed ferrets because the breeding all started with seven different individuals. So, there’s just not much diversity out there with genes," Ewelt added.
One possible solution could be cloning, and, amazingly, a black-footed ferret was just recently cloned. This way they can introduce new genetics to the area and keep the population strong.
"It’s the first time an endangered species has been cloned with the idea that maybe we can clone with genetic material to really bring in new genetic material," said Ewelt.
But now just over a week ago, 18 new furry faces were reintroduced into the wild. Wildlife biologists hope they will help the population rebound and maybe one day expand into states like Montana.
"As far as we know, there are no known populations of black-footed ferrets in Montana. Does that mean they’re not here? Absolutely not. They certainly could be, we just haven’t discovered them yet," Ewelt said.
While a step in the right direction, the black-footed ferret's story isn't a success quite yet.
"The goal would be to have a couple thousand black-footed ferrets. I believe 3,000 is the milestone they would look for so there’s a lot of work to be done," Ewelt added.
But its existence, these biologists say, is crucial to the entire landscape.
"It’s just a piece of that ecosystem puzzle that we’re trying to keep in there," added Walker.