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Black-footed Ferret

Black-footed Ferret
Scientific classification
Binomial name
Mustela nigripes

The Black-footed Ferret (Mustella nigripes) is a small carnivorous North American mammal closely related to the Steppe Polecat[?] of Russia, and a member of the diverse family Mustelidae which also includes weasels, mink, polecats[?], martens[?], otters, and badgers. Mainly because of habitat destruction, it became extinct in the wild during the 20th century.

Black-footed Ferrets are about 45 cm long, with a furry 15 cm tail, and weigh roughly a kilogram. Like most members of the family, they are very low to the ground with an elongated body and very short legs. The fur is white at the base but darkens at the tips, making them appear yellowish-brown overall, with black feet and tail-tip, and a distinctive black face mask.

Black-footed Ferret mustella nigripes.

Even before their numbers declined, Black-footed Ferrets were rarely seen: they are nocturnal hunters that are almost entirely dependant on a plentiful supply of prairie dogs to prey on, and shelter in a prairie dog burrow during the day. A single family of four Black-footed Ferrets eats about 700 prairie dogs each year and cannot survive without access to large colonies of them. With a great deal of North America's shortgrass prairie habitat plowed for crops, drastic reduction of prairie dog numbers (through both habitat loss and poisoning), and the effect of canine distemper (to which Black-footed Ferrets have no immunity), they became extinct in the wild in Canada in 1937 and were thought to be extinct in the United States as well.

In 1981, a very small population was discovered in Wyoming, still alive but severely threatened by disease. Shortly after, it was decided that this population stood little chance of surviving, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department led a cooperative program to capture the few remaining animals and begin an intensive captive breeding program. At that time, the entire world population amounted to about 50 individuals in captivity. Thus far the program has been successful (although not without setbacks along the way) and the Black-footed Ferret has been reintroduced in several states, where it appears to be holding its own.

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