Plague On The Prairie: The Fight To Save Black-Footed Ferrets From The West’s Most Insidious Disease

When a single remaining population of black-footed ferrets was discovered in Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981, scientists had one last chance to save North America’s only native ferret from extinction. Though the discovered population numbered over 100 individuals when it was found, ferrets began to die at an alarming rate just a few years after the rediscovery of the species. With their options running out, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service made the drastic choice of pulling every single surviving ferret into captivity. Thanks to decades of captive breeding and release efforts involving hundreds of people, there are now a few hundred black-footed ferrets back in the wild today. The black-footed ferret recovery effort has yet to overcome its greatest challenge, however: plague. Keeping ferrets alive in the wild is time consuming and cost intensive. Every wild ferret needs to be rounded up and vaccinated, and insecticides are sprayed over hundreds of thousands of acres each year to stave off the looming threat of a plague outbreak. To make matters worse, ferrets are becoming more inbred each year, making them even more susceptible to disease. Recently the black-footed ferret recovery effort has turned to cutting-edge genetic technologies to introduce more diversity into the ferret line, and, eventually, resistance to the plague. Some researchers think that such drastic measures might now be the only way for black-footed ferrets to ever have a hope of surviving on their own in the wild again.


About Rachel Fritts

Rachel Fritts is a science and environmental writer who covers a range of topics including conservation, biology, and the Earth sciences. She is currently a news intern at Science, and her freelance work has appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Guardian, Audubon, Mongabay, InsideClimate News, Science News, Eos, and Hakai. You can find her on Twitter @rachel_fritts. Thesis: Plague On The Prairie: The Fight To Save Black-Footed Ferrets From The West’s Most Insidious Disease


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