Black-Footed Ferret Facts: The Masked Bandits of the Northern Great Plains

Once found throughout the Great Plains, the black-footed ferret is one of North America’s most endangered animals. They rely on prairie dogs for food and their burrows for shelter and raising young. Consequently, their fate is directly linked to that of prairie dogs. As a result of habitat loss and non-native disease, black-footed ferret populations declined to the brink of extinction in the 20th century.

Captive breeding efforts and reintroductions into the wild have given black-footed ferrets a second chance for survival. Although great strides have been made to recover them, habitat loss and disease remain key threats and recovery of the species will not be complete until more ferrets exist in more places.

Currently, fewer than 500 black-footed ferrets live in the wild today at 17 reintroduction sites—a population well below the 3,000 needed to fully recover the species. WWF is helping to reach this goal by restoring and protecting ferrets and their prairie dog habitat in seven locations in the Northern Great Plains.

1. There are only three ferret species on Earth: the European polecat, the Siberian polecat, and the black-footed ferret. The black-footed ferret is the only ferret species native to North America. Female ferrets are called “jills,” males are “hobs” and young are “kits.”


2. Black-footed ferrets are long, slender animals, enabling them to easily move through prairie dog burrows. They weigh between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds and can grow up to 24 inches long. A strip of dark fur across their eyes gives them the appearance of wearing a mask.


3. Prairie dogs make up over 90 percent of the black-footed ferret’s diet. WWF protects prairie dog populations from lethal sylvatic plague outbreaks by eliminating fleas that carry the plague bacterium and testing a newly developed oral bait vaccine for prairie dogs. WWF is also expanding habitat for black-footed ferrets by relocating prairie dogs to unoccupied colonies.


4. The average life span of a ferret in the wild is 1-3 years, and 4-6 years for ferrets in captivity. WWF leads recovery efforts by working alongside other conservation organizations, federal and state agencies, tribes and landowners to create the conditions necessary to see black-footed ferrets reach sustainable levels.


5. Black-footed ferrets are solitary animals, with the exception of breeding season and females caring for their kits. They are nocturnal, meaning they’re mostly active at night, and fossorial, meaning they mostly live underground.