The Toronto Zoo has been involved in the recovery program for the endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes)
since 1992. Since then, the Toronto Zoo has produced hundreds of kits and animals have been reintroduced to the United States, Mexico and Canada. Genetically valuable animals are kept in the Species Survival Plan program for future breeding. This program is a high priority for the Zoo as we attempt to re-establish black-footed ferret populations across North America. Autumn 2009 marked the first Canadian release of black-footed ferrets into the wild -- the crowning achievement of the Canadian recovery program.
In Canada, the black-footed ferret historically ranged in the western Prairies (southern Alberta to southern Saskatchewan) but was listed as extirpated in 1978 by COSEWIC. The area in and around Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan contains the largest black-tailed prairie dog population in Canada and the prairie dog is protected within the park. As the prairie dog is the primary food for black-footed ferrets, this site is ideal for ferret reintroductions.
In 2003, the Toronto Zoo spearheaded black-footed ferret recovery in Canada and in 2004, in partnership with Parks Canada, US Fish & Wildlife Service, the Calgary Zoo, private stakeholders and other organizations, a joint Black-footed Ferret/Black-tailed Prairie Dog Recovery Team was established to set up the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets into Canada. As a result of extensive planning, 34 ferrets were released on to Canadian soil on October 2, 2009. Grasslands National Park now supports Canada’s first wild population of black-footed ferrets since they disappeared from the country several decades ago.
Since the reintroduction, frequent monitoring sessions take place to examine the threats to black-footed ferrets, how populations are doing in the wild and to determine when the wild population needs to be supplemented with additional animals. Funded by the Canadian Wildlife Federation and the Toronto Zoo Endangered Species Reserve Fund, Toronto Zoo staff participated in the first post-release monitoring session in March 2010. Teams conducted nighttime surveys during which researchers used high-powered spotlights to detect the ferrets’ distinctive green eyeshine as they poked their heads out of their burrows. Once seen, researchers placed circular microchip readers over the burrow entrances so that the ferrets' previously-implanted microchips would be scanned the next time they exited the burrow. This research revealed an excellent winter survival rate as 12 of the 34 released ferrets were relocated.
Another monitoring session in August 2010 focused on trapping as many ferrets as possible to check the health status of adults and to vaccinate and implant microchips into any new wild-born kits. Amazingly, three BFF kits were seen during this time -- the first Canadian-born kits in over 70 years. Yearly monitoring will continue to collect data on the wild population and ensure the survival of released animals.
Reintroducing the black-footed ferret into Canada is of great conservation significance as we established a population in the species’ most northern historical range. By reintroducing an extirpated species back into the Canadian prairies, the Toronto Zoo and its many partners have proven that species-at-risk recovery programs can be successful. Along with our international collaborators, we are very excited and hopeful for the continued recovery of the Canadian black-footed ferret population.