LARIMER COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — The black-footed ferret is widely regarded as the most endangered animal in North America, with fewer than 500 in the wild today.
But efforts are underway to change that, with hopes of returning a piece of Colorado’s landscape to what it once was.
“I will admit, I still get goosebumps every now and then,” Tina Jackson said. “And part of that is that we did think they were extinct at one point.”
Jackson is a species conservation coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which is leading a charge to reintroduce the ferrets to their once-native Colorado habitat.
In the 1970s, the ferrets were long believed to be extinct from North America until a dog found one on a farm in rural Wyoming.
“It’s an amazing story,” Jackson said. “The ranch dog brought this animal back to the house, and the owners were like, ‘What is this?'”
Wildlife officials were able to track that ferret to a small colony that was quickly disappearing, where they captured a handful to breed in captivity.
Fast forward to today, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife is celebrating its 500th ferret reintroduced to the wild. All of those ferrets have come from the small group that was captured.
It’s unclear how many of those are still alive, as the ferrets are extremely difficult to monitor.
“They’re very secretive animals, so they’re very hard to monitor,” Jackson said. “They live underground, they come out at night. These are all hard things for us.”
In November, a group of five ferrets raised in captivity was reintroduced to the Soapstone Prairie Natural Area near the Wyoming border, where Fort Collins ecologists have seen success over the past few years.
“We’ve had wild-born kit reproduction there, so that means we’ve done reintroductions at that site and there’s been animals that have held on and reproduced, and that’s what we’re going for,” wildlife ecologist Aran Meyer said.
The ferrets feed primarily on prairie dogs and live in the same burrow systems as their prey.
“As the prairie dogs go, so do the ferrets,” Meyer said.
And more help could be on the way, thanks to scientific advancements. Earlier this year, scientists were able to clone a black-footed ferret, marking the first U.S. endangered species to be cloned.
“It’s really hard to sell it short,” biotechnology scientist Ben Novak said. “It’s quite incredible that we can do it.”
Novak and more than a hundred other stakeholders helped clone “Elizabeth Ann,” and while she will never be released into the wild, there is hope her offspring could be.
“They only have those seven ancestors, and this ferret we cloned, she isn’t just one of those ferrets from the past. She is unrelated to every single living black-footed ferret, so she brings in a completely new gene pool to this species, and that’s something that’s never been done before,” Novak said.