Black-footed Ferret

Black-footed ferrets
A pair of black-footed ferrets emerging from a prairie dog hole, courtesy of Kimberly Fraser, USDA (public domain)

One of the rarest mammals in North America

The black-footed ferret is one of the rarest mammals in North America. The species was believed to be extinct until 1981, when a ranch dog named Shep discovered the last remnant population in Meeteetse, Wyoming.

Captive breeding of these last ferrets prevented the species from going extinct, and recovery now depends on successful reintroductions.

Ferrets require large intact prairie dog colonies to survive. But reintroduced ferret populations have been shrinking for over a decade; according to estimates, less than 400 ferrets currently exist in the wild.

Learn more about this rare species in our Colorado Endangered Species Week Your New BFFs: Black-footed Ferrets webinar where Chamois Andersen, Kaitie Schneider, and Caitlin Cattelino from Defenders of Wildlife talk about the species’ status, what’s being done to protect and restore the species, and what you can do to help.

The perils of the Wyoming 10j rule

Despite the dire status of the species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 issued what is known as a “10j rule” in Wyoming, a name derived from a provision of the Endangered Species Act meant to facilitate reintroductions of threatened and endangered species by relaxing some of the Act’s protections for reintroduced populations. But, the Wyoming 10j rule provides for no specific reintroductions and cedes the Service’s authority for ferret recovery to the State of Wyoming, essentially washing the federal government’s hands of any obligation to act in the best interest of black-footed ferret recovery.

Protecting black-footed ferrets in Thunder Basin National Grassland

“Wild ferret populations are on life support and the Service openly admits that the population continues to decline at a rate that is outpacing reintroductions,” said Matthew Sandler, Legal Director at Rocky Mountain Wild. “The clear intent of the ESA is to give the federal government power to ensure the survival of known imperiled species, even in the face of special interests and political opposition. For the Service to simply throw away this power doesn’t just harm the black-footed ferret, but all imperiled species that rely upon the ESA for their very survival.”

The real consequences of the 10j rule have been felt on public lands—in particular on the Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming, which the Service has recognized as possibly the best ferret reintroduction site in North America.

In 2020, the U.S. Forest Service amended the Grassland’s management plan to eliminate ferret reintroduction habitat and reduce prairie dog colony acreage in order to increase livestock grazing. The Forest Service pointed to Wyoming’s refusal to allow reintroductions on the Grassland as a basis for its decision.

Rocky Mountain Wild and our partner organizations are currently in Federal Court challenging both the Wyoming 10j rule and the Thunder Basin Amendment to help ensure the black-footed ferret gets the protections it needs to recover.

Learn more about our lawsuit here.