Once deemed one of the rarest mammals in North America, the black-footed ferret is primed for a major comeback, according to PostMedia.
The welcome (for ferret lovers) news is the direct result of two recovery initiatives, conducted separately at the Smithsonian National Zoo’s Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Virginia and the Grasslands National Park in Val Marie, Saskatchewan.
At SCBI, 49 black-footed ferret kits—yes, kit is official terminology for ferret babies—have been born since May, according to Our Amazing Planet. This year’s litters were larger than those in previous years.
"This is a really exciting time for us. Breaking last year’s records indicates that our husbandry and management practices are excellent," said JoGayle Howard, a reproductive physiologist at SCBI, in a press release.
To prepare for release back into the wild, SCBI’s ferrets will be sent to the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado where they will undergo "pre-conditioning."
According to Our Amazing Planet:
Preconditioning involves familiarizing the animals with burrows (underground tunnels) to increase their chances of survival in the wild. The ferrets will then be reintroduced into various sites in the western Great Plains. Currently, there are 19 reintroduction sites that cover parts of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, Mexico and Canada.
Meanwhile, at Grasslands National Park in southwest Saskatchewan, park officials have spotted three kits and their mother near a prairie dog colony, the ferret’s prime prey.
According to a spring survey, the adult female is believed to be one of 12 ferrets that survived the harsh Canadian winter after having been reintroduced to the park last fall.
PostMedia reports that the discovery was filmed by a documentary crew for "Nature of Things With David Suzuki.”
"This species was on the brink of extinction and now we have caught a glimpse of a new generation of wild-born animals," said documentary director Kenton Vaughan.
Once calling home a huge range of land—from Saskatchewan to Mexico—the critically endangered species was all but eradicated in the early 20th century.
Conservationists believed the species was extinct until 1981 when a handful were found in Wyoming.
The 1988 Recovery Plan for the black-footed ferret calls for the establishment of 10 or more separate, free-ranging wild populations. By the year 2010, biologists hope to have 1,500 ferrets established in the wild, with no fewer than 30 breeding adults in each population. If these objectives are met, the ferret could be downlisted from endangered to threatened status.