Saving Black-footed Ferrets With Modern Technology

a black footed ferret sits on a rock

The black-footed ferret is a unique and highly endangered grassland species. Once thought to be extinct, less than 300 individuals are estimated to live in the wild today. Reintroduction efforts have established small, scattered populations in locations throughout western North America.

The long-term recovery of this endangered species is next to impossible without prairie dogs. Not only are prairie dogs the black-footed ferret's main source of prey, ferrets use prairie dog burrows as habitat areas to shelter and raise their young. These underground burrowing networks also provide ecosystem services that benefit countless grassland animals, including swift foxes, mountain plovers, burrowing owls and bison. 

The Great Plains Science Program is leading a multi-institutional effort to improve the methods used to track animal populations, including the black-footed ferret. Our goal is to refine the techniques that would allow us to better understand ferret habitats and their impact on the landscape. With better data, decision-makers can shape their management strategies to ensure that critical habitat areas are capable of supporting healthy animal populations.  

Refining tracking technology to locate prairie dog burrows 

Traditional methods for tracking wildlife are not always reliable for gathering data on animals that spend much of their lives underground.  The Great Plains Science Program is leveraging new technologies to establish a cutting-edge system for tracking prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets more accurately than before.  

Our approach combines lightweight, high-frequency tracking technology for monitoring aboveground movements. And when the animals head underground, we apply a novel method that tracks fine-scale changes in acceleration, orientation, and magnetometry to map movement.

Investigating the role of burrows in an ecosystem 

Through the use of new tracking technology, we are working to understand the movement ecology of prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. Our goal is to uncover how these animals use space and time in these underground networks of tunnel systems. This research can help us address questions related to disease ecology, predator-prey dynamics, and habitat requirements, which could change the way we viewand the way we conservethis endangered species. This endeavor is a joint effort between our team and Swansea University, American Prairie, Fort Belknap Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and several other state, federal, and NGO partners. 

Applying artificial intelligence and drone imagery to rapidly assess habitat 

Our team is leading an effort to improve data quality by combining aerial drone imagery with artificial intelligence. Our aim is to develop a new tool that would allow for a more accurate assessment  of black-footed ferret habitat.  

We are also exploring methods that would allow drone-collected aerial imagery of a prairie dog colony to be evaluated by artificial intelligence models. This would enable ecologists to quickly and accurately identify trends, and prioritize conservation actions to ensure key habitat areas remain stable  

On-the-ground recovery efforts  

In addition to investigating new tech-boosted conservation tools, we’re pairing our efforts with on-the-ground work that directly contributes to establishing viable black-footed ferret populations. We are currently collaborating with several partner organizations to manage and protect habitat areas at multiple locations throughout Montana. We take actions to establish new reintroduction sites, conduct habitat suitability studies, draft management plans, apply disease management techniques, and monitor existing black-footed ferret populations. 

Continue Exploring

Changing Landscapes Initiative

Smithsonian scientists work alongside community members in Northwestern Virginia to evaluate the impacts of land-use change on wildlife, ecosystem services and community health.

Coral Biobank Alliance

Smithsonian scientists are part of the Coral Biobank Alliance, a global network of coral experts preserving corals for restoration and research.

Coral Species Cryopreserved with Global Collaborators​

View a list of the coral species that have been cryopreserved using a technique developed by Smithsonian scientists.

Wildebeest Conservation

Conservation Ecology Center scientists are tracking the movements of white-bearded wildebeest to understand how changes across the landscape impact the species.

Protecting Piping Plovers in the Great Lakes

In 2022, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center will begin a new research project to help protect endangered piping plovers from predation by merlins.

Swift Fox Recovery

Smithsonian scientists, in collaboration with the Fort Belknap Fish and Wildlife Department, are embarking on a five-year swift fox reintroduction project to restore swift foxes to tribal lands and to help reestablish connectivity between disjointed swift fox populations.

Conserving the World’s Largest Working Wetland

Conservation Ecology Center researchers are collaborating with institutions in Brazil and other Smithsonian colleagues to support sustainable cattle ranching in the Pantanal wetland.