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Earth Notes: Ranchers Help Expand Habitat For Endangered Black-Footed Ferret

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AZGFD/George Andrejko
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The Arizona Game and Fish Department is on the lookout for thousands of acres of habitat for one of the most endangered animals in North America: the black-footed ferret. Ideally, it would be an area of healthy grassland with a substantial population of prairie dogs, the ferret’s main food source.

Tens of thousands of native ferrets once lived across the West, from Canada to Mexico. But, by the late 1960’s, prairie dog populations had declined so drastically from plague and other factors, that black-footed ferrets ended up on the Endangered Species List. Biologists believe there may only be a few hundred currently living in the wild in the U.S., but their numbers fluctuate greatly.

As part of a recovery effort for the animals, Arizona wildlife officials look for partnerships with private landowners who have expanses of suitable habitat. Captive-reared ferrets acclimate in outdoor pens before being released into their new home in the wild.

Arizona’s first black-footed ferret reintroduction program launched some 20 years ago in Aubrey Valley near Seligman, with the Double O Ranch signing on to the program. Ferrets did well there for a time, but few have been spotted lately. Biologists are still trying to determine the reason. Babbitt Ranches also set aside 12,000 acres as part of the program. Ferrets were released there in 2007, but have faced challenges due to plague in the area.

Despite these setbacks, however, biologists continue to search for landowners willing to partner with them and give black-footed ferrets a better chance at survival.

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