Black Footed Ferret

     In the past three decades very few endangered species have been restored to
viable populations. The black footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) was believed to
be the most endangered mammal in the united states. It is a small mink sized
carnivore of the Great plains and intermountain basins The ferrets appear to be
obligatory predators on the prairie dogs and once occupied a range essentially
identical to that of the prairie dogs. They prey on them and also use their
burrows for shelter and nesting. The prairie dogs are considered agricultural
pests and competitors with livestock since white settlement first began in the

American west. Large scale rodent control programs were implemented by the state
and federal governments. They drastically reduced the population of prairie dogs
(and other species related to the prairie dog ecosystem) through trapping,
gassing and poisoning. These poisoning programs were considered a major cause of
the ferret’s demise. But, the main cause was the loss of the ferret’s prey
base and appropriate habitat. Their remaining habitat was fragmented thus
leaving the ferret population vulnerable to extinction from various causes
including inability to find mates, inbreeding depression, environmental events,
and disease of ferrets and their prey. The ferrets were believed to be extinct
in 1974, but in 1981 a ferret was discovered in Meeteetsee, Wyoming when a ranch
dog killed an unusual animal eating from its food dish and the rancher took the
carcass to a knowledgeable taxidermist. This was viewed as a rare chance to
recover the species. In 1985, a catastrophic disease struck the small ferret
population, and most remaining animals were taken into captivity. Captive
breeding was initiated, and reintroduction into the wild from the captive
population began in 1991. The ferret is just one of more than 900 species listed
under the Endangered Species act as either threatened or endangered. Over three
thousand more species wait on a list of candidates for such status, but in the

1980s over thirty-four species went extinct while on the waiting list (Cohn,

1993). Is the ferret program representative of the national effort to recover
species? Main body: United States policy on endangered species, including the
ferret and hundreds of other plants and animals, is codified in the 1973

Endangered Species act (ESA ,as amended, U.S. Congress 1983, Bean 1991) . This
piece of legislation sets a national goal the prevention of any further
extinction and the restoration of species currently threatened with extinction.

The ESA is a highly popular piece of legislature because no one would advocate
the killing of an entire species. But the simple goal of saving a species cloaks
a complicated process. The ferret case is a good illustration of how the ESA is
actually outfitted, how and state officials and others tackle the complex work
of restoring species, and how problems come about in nearly all recovery plans.

In short, the ferret rescue is a measure of how the ESA really works. After
finding the small population in Wyoming, in 1981, one might expect a well led
and smoothly coordinated recovery effort to have been quickly organized to save
a species that had been recognized as America’s most endangered mammal. Many
universities, conservation organizations, state and federal agencies, and local
people were willing to help. Collectively they command substantial resources,
not only in terms of money: national and international expertise on population
genetics and small population management, experienced field researchers, tested
breeding facilities, and support staffs from major zoos. All that was needed for
the ferrets to be restored swiftly, professionally, and efficiently was a means
to bring the talent together in a productive well organized program. Under the

ESA, the task of organizing recovery efforts is the responsibility of the
federal government acting through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the

U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. Federal officials had numerous options
open to them at the start of the ferret program, one of which was to function
like administrators of a large hospital, pulling together a world-class
professional team, supporting the necessary work with adequate funding,
equipment and facilities, and relying on the team’s judgment to bring about
the patient’s recovery. But this model was not selected. The ferret program
was organized and operated very differently. Section 6 of the ESA requires that
states be involved to the "maximum extent practicable." Early in 1982,
the federal government turned the main responsibility for ferret restoration
over to the state of Wyoming. Almost immediately, problems began to emerge.

Through a formal resolution, the American Society of mammologists (1986:786)
urged "the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wyoming Fish and Game department,
and other state wildlife departments, and numerous and numerous interested
conservation groups to make broader recovery efforts" than those exhibited
by the current program. Miller, Reading, and Forest (Miller et al.1996:208)
identify the FWS as the national agent responsible for maintaining professional
restoration programs. "It is our contention," they write, "that

Region 6, of the FWS, failed to make the ferret recovery a national program. It
may have been easiest for Region 6 to acuiesence to Wyoming’s agenda in the
short term, but the strategy has probably impaired the recovery in the long run.

People, or agencies, in a position to improve conservation should not simply
throw money at a problem, but invest in time and attention as well." The

Wyoming Game and Fish department was interested in doing whatever was necessary
to insure that the ferrets be returned to the wild in Wyoming first, whether or
not Wyoming was the best place to introduce them. There could have been sites in
other states which were better suited for ferret reintroduction, but the
jealousy of the Wyoming Game and Fish department prevents them from considering
such an alternative. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (1990) concluded that
state-level concerns had taken precedence over national recovery issues. The

Wilderness Society concluded that of the 495 species listed in 1988, only about

16 (3.2 percent) are recovering. Another 18 listed species (3.6 percent) may
have already been extinct. This is a record that fails to demonstrate the basic
promises of the act. The General Accounting Office (1992) added that of sixteen
species removed from the list, five were recovered, seven were extinct, and four
were reclassified because of misinformation. Two federal audits of the ESA
implementation have been conducted. Reviews of the FWS endangered species
program and found that the federal government did not maintain centralized
information needed to determine how well the overall program was operating.

Required recovery plans have not been developed and approved for many species.

In 16 recovery plans that were investigated in depth, nearly half of the tasks
listed had not been undertaken even though the plans had been approved, on
average, more than four years earlier. Fws officials attributed this to shortage
of funds, "the inspector general of the Interior department has lambasted
his federal colleagues at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charging that they
may be sending species to extinction" (Holden1990). Conclusion: The
destruction of other life forms because of the actions of people is a problem
with profound biological, ecological, economic, and ethical dimensions. We must
assume that a healthy biosphere is in the common interest of humanity.

Appreciation of the fundamental importance and far-sightedness of the Endangered

Species Act and other biodiversity protection policies has grown over the last
two decades, but that has neither prevented nor appreciably slowed the
extinction crisis. Around the globe, the problem of extinction is extreme and
growing, with perhaps scores of species disappearing everyday. The ESA is
potentially a powerful tool to better the extinction crisis, and in many ways
has served as a global model. But despite its value both substantively and
symbolically, there are problems with it, as both the biological and political
trends of the past years attest. Implementation has fallen short of promise.

Protecting species under the ESA is a long , complex process. Once species are
recognized as deserving of protection and are listed, conservation programs must
be designed, approved, and then implemented. Almost four thousand species in the

United States now wait to be afforded the basic protections of the ESA; several
hundred, many of them plants may already be extinct. Beyond the listing process,
there are innumerable steps, activities and processes that make up the ESA
implementation. The extinction problem in the U.S. and the world is apparently
growing faster than practical policy responses can be generated to stop it. The
black footed ferret was a good example for showing how there are problems with
the conservation process and limitations of conventional approaches. The ferret
restoration program was fraught with problems, which has added to its notoriety
in the public eye and the scientific and conservation communities. If we are to
improve the policy-making process for conserving biodiversity, we must
acknowledge the problem openly, honestly, and realistically. We must turn our
knowledge of saving species and take turn it into more effective, more efficient
conservation gains. In other words, we must reconstruct the endangered species
recovery process.


American Society of Mammologists. 1986. Recovery and
restoration of the black footed ferret. Journal of mammology 67:786. Bean,

M.J.1983. The evolution of national wildlife law. Prager, New York. Cohn,

J.P.1993. Defenders of biodiversity. Government executive national journal,

April:18-22 General accounting office. 1988. Endangered species: Management
improvements could enhance recovery programs. GAO/RCED 89-5. GPO, Washington.

Holden, C.1990. Ecology hero in the interior department. Science 250:620-621.

Miller, B.J., R. Reading, C. Conway, J.A. Jackson, M.A. Hutchins, N. Snyder, S.

Forest, J. Frazier, and S. Derricson. 1994. Improving endangered species
programs: Avoiding organizational pitfalls, tapping the resources, and adding
accountability. Environmental Management 18:637-645. Reffault, W. 1991. The
endangered species lists: Chronicles of extinction? P.77-75. Island Press,