Ferrets find stomping ground at Phx zoo
Breeding facility celebrates 20 years of saving near-extinct species
PHOENIX — Over the past 20 years the Phoenix Zoo has bred hundreds of black-footed ferrets, helping to revive an endangered species that was once thought to be extinct.
State, tribal and federal agencies and the zoo celebrated that anniversary Monday at a new breeding facility that conservationists hope will continue the ferret’s recovery well into the future.
“It really does mark a pretty special effort,” said Larry Voyles, director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Native to an area of the West extending from Mexico into the Great Basin states, black-footed ferrets were decimated by disease and the expansion of ranching and farming. The latter destroyed the habitat of prairie dogs, the ferrets’ main prey.
Once common in the prairies of northern Arizona, the last documented sighting of a black-footed ferret was near Flagstaff in 1931.
The species was believed to be extinct until a small colony was found in 1981 in Wyoming. After disease reduced this population to only 18 ferrets, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured the animals to rebuild their numbers through captive breeding.
In 1991, ferrets were brought back to Arizona with the Phoenix Zoo’s captive-breeding program. In 1996, officials reintroduced the ferrets into Aubrey Valley near Seligman.
Voyles credited partnerships among agencies, the Navajo and Hualapai Tribes and the Cholla Cattle Co., which leases land where the ferrets have been reintroduced, for making the recovery effort a success.
The Seligman population is now self-sustaining and includes approximately 100 black-footed ferrets. Of those, 85 were introduced from the Phoenix Zoo.
The Phoenix Zoo has bred more than 400 black-footed ferrets since 1991, according to Stuart Wells, the zoo’s director of conservation and science.
The Phoenix facility is just one of six that have developed and maintained the breeding program. It was updated in 2010 with the construction of a 6,200-square-foot breeding center within the zoo’s Conservation Center Complex.
Because ferrets can get sick from human illnesses like the flu, the small animals are secured in a controlled environment. Zoo employees must wear special clothing and masks when working in the new building, which has a treatment room, lab and expanded holding areas.
The zoo is currently home to 33 black-footed ferrets. This includes 13 males and 10 females that are able to breed.
Estimates put the total population of the species between 800 and 1,000, which includes reintroduction sites throughout t he U.S., Canada and Mexico.
The site near Seligman hasn’t needed ferrets from captive breeding since 2007 because the ferrets there are doing the job themselves, so those born at the Phoenix Zoo go elsewhere.
“Can we revive the species?,” said Bill Van Pelt, non-game birds and mammals program manager for Game and Fish. “It was one of the first listed, and I believe it will be one of the first removed.”