Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Black-Footed Ferret Timeline

  Early 1800s   Lewis and Clark report seeing an “infinite number” of prairie dogs during their journey west at the beginning of the 19th century. Although they did not report seeing black-footed ferrets, they were no doubt below ground awaiting their prey to return.
  1851   John James Audubon and his naturalist sidekick, the Reverend John Bachman, officially “discovered” the BFF when a fur trader forwarded them a pelt with the distinctive ivory and brown markings, black feet and black-tipped tail from an outpost along the lower Platte River in Montana. No other ferret sighting or specimen was reported for 25 more years and rumors spread that Audubon and Bachman faked the discovery to bolster their landmark book, The Quadrupeds of North America.
  Early 1900s   Prairie dog habitat erodes in the advent of John Deere’s invention of the steel plow in 1837, as homesteaders head west to stake claims and till the soil. Federally sponsored poisoning campaigns start around this time (and continue today), further reducing prairie dog colonies and ferret populations consequently plummet.
  1967   The black-footed ferret is listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
  1975-1980   No black-footed ferrets seen.
  1981   Shep, a ranch dog in Meeteetse, Wyoming, kills a small animal he found at his food bowl. His owners, Lucille and John Hogg, bring the creature to a local taxidermist, who recognizes the animal and alerts wildlife officials. Biologists discover a wild colony of black-footed ferrets nearby and hope for the species soars.
  1984   July spotlight surveys reveal a minimum population of 129 black-footed ferrets. A September mark/recapture survey reveals 128 ferrets. The ferret population appears to be thriving.
  1985   A July spotlight survey reveals a minimum population of 58 black-footed ferrets. In September, the mark/recapture survey reveals only 31 ferrets. Researchers collect fleas that test positive for sylvatic plague, but believe that only prairie dogs are killed by plague, not ferrets. In reality, the ferret population begins to decline this year because of BOTH sylvatic plague and canine distemper.
  1985-1987   Researchers collect the remaining 24 wild black-footed ferrets and bring them into captivity. Of these, 18 survive (seven males and 11 females).
  1987   Ferret kits born at Wyoming’s Sybille Research Facility near Laramie. SCBI becomes the first organization outside of Wyoming to receive offspring from the 18 surviving wild black-footed ferrets. SCBI receives seven.
  1988   Thirty-four more ferret kits born at Sybille. Facility managers decide to split up the colony because a single fire or the outbreak of disease could wipe out the entire colony. The National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute breeds the animals it received the previous fall. USFWS publishes the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Plan.
  1991   Number of ferrets in breeding programs approaches 200 and USFWS releases a group of 49 ferrets into southeastern Wyoming’s Shirley Basin.
  1994   Original 49 ferrets reintroduced widely wiped out by sylvatic plague. Reintroductions continue despite this setback.
  1996   SCBI-FR tries its first artificial insemination on the black-footed ferret using fresh sperm.
  2002   Zoo scientists collaborate with other organizations and zoos to begin surveying the health of black-footed ferrets at all reintroduction sites, including ferrets that had been released and those born in the wild. They find that ferrets remain susceptible to sylvatic plague, which wipes out their prey and can potentially kill them, too.
  2008   Two black-footed ferrets at SCBI in Front Royal, Va. each give birth to a kit that was sired by males that died in 1999 and 2000. The ferrets were artificially inseminated with frozen semen from the two deceased males, each giving birth to a kit on June 20 and 21, respectively. The sperm samples were collected and frozen in 1997 and 1998. Until this time, only three black-footed ferret kits had been born from this method.
  2009   SCBI produces a black-footed ferret kit through artificial insemination using sperm that had been frozen for more than 20 years.
  2010   Twelve litters of black-footed ferrets are born at SCBI in Front Royal, Va., including litters born to four females who never had kits before. A total of 50 kits are born, with 49 surviving, marking a new record for SCBI-FR. Five of the litters born include six kits—unusual for a species that usually has three or four kits at a time. Two kits were the result of artificial insemination.
  2011   Nine litters of black-footed ferrets are born at SCBI in Front Royal, Va., including one litter of 10—which matches the record for the largest litter ever born. A total of 51 kits is born, with 50 surviving, beating 2010’s record. One of the kits is born as the result of artificial insemination with frozen-thawed sperm.

Posted September 2011