The black-footed ferret is one of the most endangered mammals in North America. A member of the weasel family, the black-footed ferret saw a sharp population decline throughout the 20th century because of sylvatic plague and decreases in prairie dog populations—the ferret's primary food source. Biologists declared the species extinct in 1979, until a small colony of ferrets was discovered on a private ranch in Meeteetse, Wyoming in 1981. From this tiny population (18 ferrets), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) developed a successful captive-breeding and reintroduction program to help reestablish wild ferret populations in the western U.S. Since then, the USFWS and state wildlife agencies have released ferrets in eight western states, and an estimated 200-300 ferrets now live in the wild.
In 2013, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) launched an ambitious reintroduction program to return black-footed ferrets to Colorado. Since the program's inception, CPW has released 300 ferrets at six different sites in Larimer, Adams, Pueblo, Baca and Prowers counties.
Most of the ferrets were acquired from the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center (FCC) in Larimer County. Here, the captive-raised animals learn the skills necessary to hunt and survive on their own. Once the ferrets have demonstrated independence, they are released into the wild. Although Colorado's reintroduction program is still in its infancy, wildlife biologists are optimistic about the ferret's plight. Surveys indicate that ferrets remain at all six release sites, with successful breeding documented at two locations.
In the next few years, CPW biologists intend to release ferrets at additional sites with the hopes of establishing self-sustaining populations. Because four of the six release sites are located on private property, CPW has worked cooperatively with private landowners, the Colorado Cattleman's Association and the city of Fort Collins on Colorado's Black-Footed Ferret Reintroduction Program. CPW programs are not supported by tax dollars. 70% of funding comes from the sale of Colorado hunting and fishing licenses.