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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Peanut Butter & The Endangered Black-Footed Ferret

Long before whites came to the New World, wildlife abounded across the North American continent and Native Americans drew from the rich variety of fauna sustenance, warmth, inspiration, and spiritual power. Native Americans greatly admired weasels and ferrets, which belong to the weasel family, for their ferocity and hunting ability, intelligence, curiosity, and playfulness. They especially admired the Black-Footed Ferret for its dramatic coloring and used their tails and pelts as common adornment in headgear, garments and shields.

Black-Footed Ferrets, though small, prey primarily on prairie dogs, which often weigh more than a ferret and can be dangerous for a ferret to kill. Before the West was settled, where there were prairie dogs, there were Black-Footed Ferrets. But as the white juggernaut spread across the continent, prairie dog habitat was dramatically reduced and so too ferret habitat. And European settlers not only brought human diseases, but animal diseases as well that decimated prairie dog and ferret populations and other wildlife species. What prairie dog populations were left were regarded as pests by farmers and ranchers and there were massive campaigns to poison and burn out the animals.

Prairie dog populations and all species that depended on them for food continued to plummet through the 1900s. Today, prairie dog populations have been decimated by 95% of their pre-New World numbers. Consequently, by 1979, the Black-Footed Ferret was declared extinct. Then, just two years later in 1981, a pet dog brought a dead ferret to Lucille Hogg’s back porch near Meeteetse, Wyoming. To the shock of the world, a small colony of Black-Footed Ferrets was discovered not far from Lucille’s home out in the prairie!

Scientists monitored the colony, but it struggled to survive and its numbers kept decreasing. In 1985, Department of Fish & Wildlife scientists decided to capture the 18 last Black-Footed Ferrets remaining in North America and created the national Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center to begin trying to recover the species through breeding in captivity. Below is a wonderful NatGeo video about the recovery progam.

VIDEO -Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center

Today the center successfully produces 250 Black-Footed Ferret kits annually. The Center not only breeds the animals but has a sophisticated program of monitoring the animals, inoculating them from disease, raising them successfully to young adulthood, and also “training” the ferrets how to hunt their native prey, prairie dogs. They begin first by feeding kits rat carcasses to habituate them to eating other prey. Then they introduce small rodents in their cages.

The final step is to graduate the ferrets into larger pens where they release prairie dogs and the ferrets learn to kill them for food. The learning process does not always go well. Since prairie dogs can often outweigh the ferrets and have long claws and teeth themselves, some ferrets do not always fair well. But it is a necessary step in teaching the ferrets the skills they need to survive in the wild. Below is another great NatGeo VIDEO showing how the Center's staff “train” ferrets in captivity to hunt their prey and become self-sufficient in the wild. WARNING: If you are sensitive about seeing animals kill their prey, you may not want to view this clip.

VIDEO - Endangered Ferrets “Trained” to Be in the Wild

So how does the peanut butter in the title come into this story? It turns out that wild prairie dogs love the taste of human peanut butter. As ferrets from captivity have been released into the wild, the newly released animals face a serious plague called Yersinia pestis. The plague can wipe out entire prairie dog towns, destoying the ferrets' food source. And if ferrets eat a diseased prairie dog or are bitten by fleas carrying the bacteria, they can be killed outright.

To fight the plague, scientist had been capturing ferrets to vaccinate them and also dust prairie dog burrows with an insecticide to kill the disease-carrying fleas. But that was costly and time- and effort-consuming. Some clever person thought of a brilliant solution: feed prairie dog colonies peanut butter bait containing the oral plague vaccine! It saves the prairie dogs and the ferrets. No word yet on if the prairie dogs prefer their peanut butter creamy or crunchy...

For related posts about frontier wildlife, go to

-Leave It to Beavers

-War on Wolves

-Every Dead Buffalo Is An Indian Gone

-Nature’s Odd Follows

-Yellowstone’s Wolves

-Grizzlies, Lords of the Frontier

-The Wild Turkey

-America’s First Animal Shelter

-Prehistoric Giants Unearthed

-Rabies on the Frontier


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