Scientists May Have Saved Continent's Rarest Mammal
Black-footed ferret is making a comeback
By Matt Cantor,  Newser User
Posted Nov 18, 2014 11:36 AM CST
A black-footed ferret peeks out of a tube on Oct. 1, 2014, after being brought to a ranch near Williams, Ariz.   (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

(Newser) – The black-footed ferret is the rarest mammal on the continent, but conservation efforts are making strides in preventing it from disappearing altogether. That's what people thought had happened 35 years ago, when the animal was declared extinct—for the second time. But after a dog found a black-footed ferret in Wyoming in 1981, breeders used 18 surviving animals from that newly uncovered population to start populations at 25 sites, National Geographic reports. Now, there are about 500 of the creatures in the wild, says wildlife official Peter Gober. But things aren't easy for the only American ferret species, the Colorado Springs Independent notes.

Both they and their prairie-dog prey lack resistance to a foreign disease known as sylvatic plague, National Geographic explains. "Due to drought and because of this plague," prairie-dog numbers rise and fall; the ferret population does, too, Gober says. The animals "come and go" like "lights blinking on a Christmas tree," notes the official, who breeds 250 of them each year in Colorado. Another problem: Prairie dogs eat the same grass cattle do. The government is offering ranchers financial support in exchange for allowing the prairie dogs some room. "We hope that from Penrose to Piñon and across the Arkansas River, our holdings … will never be part of a development," one rancher tells the Independent. "These will be open spaces forever, where the ferrets can roam free." (Speaking of roaming free, people may have recently spotted a gray wolf in the Grand Canyon for the first time in 70 years.)