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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© Bruce D. Taubert

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Making a Comeback
Black-footed ferrets are few and far between, but their situation is a lot better than it was in 1985, when only 18 of them existed in North America. Since then, thanks to an Arizona-based captive-breeding program, the elusive mammals are making a comeback.

By Amanda Fruzynski

if the Lone Ranger were reincarnated in animal form, he'd likely come back as a black-footed ferret. There's the matching black eye masks, of course, but the ferret's preference for working alone would also sit well with the Lone Ranger.

Like many cowboys, most black-footed ferrets are solitary animals, preferring to wander alone unless it's mating season. They're also hard to sneak up on — like some cowboys — because they're nocturnal and they're among the most endangered mammals in North America.

Your best chance of seeing one is wherever you find prairie dogs — the majority of a black-footed ferret's diet consists of that burrowing rodent.

The ferret's scarcity dates back to the latter part of the 20th century, when prairie-dog populations took a massive hit because farmers viewed them as destructive. Without food, the ferret population also plummeted, and by 1985, only 18 black-footed ferrets existed in North America. In an effort to save the species, the survivors were put into a captive-breeding program.

In Arizona, black-footed ferrets hadn't been seen since the late 1930s, but in 1996, Aubrey Valley, which is located outside of Seligman, became the fourth site in the United States to be selected for a reintroduction program. And like before, the ferrets' main food source is prairie dogs, specifically Gunnison prairie dogs, the only species that exists in the state. They're typically found north of the Mogollon Rim and south of the Colorado River.

As the population slowly recovers, the Arizona Game and Fish Department is working hard to measure the growth by leading volunteers on "spotlighting" trips in the spring and fall. As the name suggests, spotlights are pointed into burrows. If there's a ferret inside, the emerald-green eyes of the 18- to 24-inch mammal will shine. Biologists then capture the animals to determine whether they're from the captive-born population or whether they were born in the wild. Wild-born ferrets are tagged for future reference and re-released to burrow.

It's a slow process, and the animals are still at risk, but thanks to the efforts of biologists and volunteers, black-footed ferrets aren't quite ready to ride off into the sunset.

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