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magazine / dec09

December 2009 issue


Return of the ferret   (Page 1 of 4)

Erased from the Canadian prairie seven decades ago and dwindling to within a whisker of extinction, the black-footed ferret is poised to make a precarious recovery

By Candace Savage with photography by Jo-Anne McArthur
Black-footed ferret
A black-footed ferret in captivity at the Toronto Zoo.
Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur
Return of the ferret
Mapping ferret
Lakota celebrate the
ferret’s return
Photo Club: Field Report
Wildlife conservation

Outside the car window, a large rodent called a blacktailed prairie dog stands guard over what looks like a ruined world. As far as the eye can see, the land is dry and scabby, cratered with prairie dog burrows and hatched with a meagre growth of sage and grass. On the horizon, the blue rim of the Frenchman Valley, in the west block of Grasslands National Park, shimmers in the haze of a midsummer afternoon.

‘Endangered’ is not a cheery word, but it certainly beats ‘extinct.’
No matter which way you turn, you see rodent after rodent after rodent, all of them a-twitch. Some, like my bowling pin of a neighbour, keep watch, ready at the first hint of danger to throw their heads back in a yip-yipping alarm. Others, meanwhile, get on with the serious work of digging and denudation, as if their sole mission in life were to reduce the rangeland of southern Saskatchewan to desolation.

But first impressions can be deceiving and seldom more so than here. This apparently barren landscape — a 15-minute drive from the village of Val Marie, Canada’s proud “Prairie Dog Capital” — is actually an exceptionally biodiverse place. And the plump little rodents that are responsible for this biological enrichment are not vermin, as one might at first suppose, but an animal that, through its activities, creates habitat for dozens of insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, including some of the most vulnerable creatures on the planet.

I swing my binoculars up to scan the margins of the colony, hoping to catch sight of one of the rare species that find refuge here. What a treat it would be to see a family of endangered burrowing owls standing beside the prairie dog hole in which they’ve made their nest or to watch a group of endangered male sage grouse performing their strange, gobbling dance or to glimpse an endangered greater shorthorned lizard basking in the warm dirt.


“Endangered” is not a cheery word, but it certainly beats “extinct.” Whether I see these critters (and, today, I appear to be out of luck), it’s reassuring to know that they are out there, taking advantage of whatever opportunities the prairie dogs happen to offer. Until recently, that’s more than could have been said about another member of the prairie dog ecosystem, a beguiling baby-faced carnivore called the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes). Once found in almost every prairie dog colony across the length and breadth of the North American plains, from the Rio Grande north to the Frenchman Valley, this mid-sized member of the weasel family was extirpated from Canada in the mid-1930s and globally extinct in the wild by the late 1970s.

But now, thanks to the presence of these busy rodents — and to a recovery effort that has tested the limits of human dedication — the black-footed ferret is being given a chance to get re-established right here, on the northernmost edge of its range. Come next spring, if all goes well, wild black-footed ferrets will produce offspring, or kits, in Canada for the first time in 70 years. This scruffy, dried-out, dug-up, gnawed-over piece of prairie is about to witness a rebirth.


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Comments on this articleLeave a comment

Cortney, you have misread the article. The rodent discussed in the beginning is the Black-tailed Prairie Dog, and when Candace Savage turns to the subject of the ferrets she distinctly lists them as Carnivores, specifically weasels. Please read more carefully Candace Savage would not make such a mistake as that!

Submitted by ishtar on Thursday, February 3, 2011

Just a quick comment on the opening line of this story, ferrets are NOT rodents. They are carnivorous mammals in the family mustelidae, or by their more common name weasels. I think people get the wrong idea about "rodents" as pests, and it's important to remember that these mammals are not a pest to the native grasslands and prairies that they inhabit.

Submitted by Cortney on Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I live in the Okanagan valley, but I grew up in Saskatchewan. I have long waited for the day I would hear that my favourite endangered critter was being returned to its Canadian home. I shed a tear as I read that article.

Thanks everyone who donated time and money, land and hope to that day. Candace Savage — you may have your doubts about what we can and are doing to save our endangered species, but you gave me hope today.

A comment to Rashell Sinclar’s wonderfully supportive note. Not that I doubt you know better, but your note is a bit misleading. Domestic ferrets are NOT the same species as black-footed ferrets and people who have domestic ferrets as pets should not try to “help” the cause by releasing them to the wild. PLEASE, anyone who has read Ms. Sinclar’s thoughtful note, with the understanding that black-footed ferrets and pet ferrets are one and the same, do not set domestic ferrets “free.” They are not wild animals, they have been domestic for over 2,000 years and would either die, or worse, become a pest that upsets the balance of an entire ecosystem, much like rabbits, cats and cane toads in Australia, raccoons and foxes on the Queen Charlotte Islands, domestic cats on New Zealand and so on. One of the reasons black-footed ferrets are struggling is because they are not naturally immune to diseases introduced by the invasion of non-native animals.

Further more, I am not aware that black-footed ferrets are native to Canada’s East Kootenay region and would be careful of anyone attempting any spice introduction that may be catastrophic to the ecosystem. About 100 years ago the Europeans thought that it would be a great idea to put deer on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the west cost of Canada to feed the native people there. Those native people lived off of marine animals and fish. They had never seen a deer and so they didn’t think eating it was a good idea. And now the islands have a pretty funky deer problem.

There are over 600 endangered animal species in Canada that need help. Locate your local organizations and volunteer or donate money. This is a great way to learn about your local wildlife and you will feel good doing it.

Submitted by Charlotte on Friday, December 11, 2009

We have had ferrets as pets. They are wonderfull animals. I was very happy to read this story and to know that they are not going be extinct. We live in Grasemere, B.C., and and would love to see them back in this area and would love to help with this matter.

Submitted by Rashell Sinclair on Wednesday, December 2, 2009

As an outdoor education teacher, I have had the opportunity to take students on educational excursions to Peggy's Cove in the East to Churchill in the North and to the Queen Charlottes in the West. Yet, one of the memorable events my class has ever attended was the black-footed ferret reintroduction in Grasslands National Park on October 2. I took a group of 20 Grade 12s and, regardless of whether or not they were outdoors enthusiasts, you could see that they realized the significance of the day. I am glad that you chose to do an article on this historic event and I appreciate the coverage that Candace Savage and Jo-Anne McArthur gave the ferrets on their long journey back to the Canadian prairie.

Submitted by Darin Faubert on Monday, November 30, 2009

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