-- This Monday marks the 30th anniversary of the rediscovery of the black-footed ferret, the only ferret native to North America --

September 23, 2011, Colorado Springs, CO – This Monday, September 26, marks the 30th anniversary of the rediscovery of the black-footed ferret, the only ferret native to North America. Black-footed ferrets were believed to be extinct in the wild until a small population was discovered in Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is one of just six facilities in the world breeding this endangered species and this year, 11 kits born at the zoo will be released in the wild. The kits were transported from Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Carr, Colorado, via the ZOOMobile. There, they undergo a preconditioning process, including exposure to the elements and hunting prairie dogs, to prepare them for survival in the wild.

See video of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s black-footed ferret kits here.

See photos of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s black-footed ferret kits here.

“The black-footed ferret exists nowhere else,” says Dr. Della Garelle, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Director of Conservation and Species Survival Plan Chair for the international black-footed ferret breeding team. “From the very brink of extinction, just 18 animals left, we have made tremendous progress in repatriating black-footed ferrets to America’s prairies.”

The black-footed ferret once inhabited prairie dog towns ranging from Canada to Mexico. They rely on prairie dogs as primary prey, and use prairie burrows for shelter and nesting. As prairie dog populations were decimated due to non-native plague and land development for farming/ranching, the black-footed ferret became critically endangered.

“Black-footed ferrets are specialized predators of prairie dogs and essential to the ecosystem, helping to keep prairie dog populations in check,” says Garelle. “Returning this endangered native to its natural place in nature helps to complete the establishment of healthy American prairies.”

Black-footed ferrets are nocturnal, so it is difficult to gauge their exact population. However, thanks to captive breeding efforts by Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, five other breeding facilities and the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team, their population has gone from extinct in the wild to at least 1,000 in the wild. There are currently no active release sites in Colorado; the nearest release sites are in Kansas and New Mexico.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has been a part of the black-footed ferret captive breeding program since 1990, with a total of 413 kits born at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and 151 kits released to the wild. The breeding season begins in January and ends in fall. The Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center is not accessible to the public because the animals are especially susceptible to stress and disease, but a black-footed ferret is on exhibit in Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Loft for educational purposes.