Black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) recovery strategy

Official title: Recovery Strategy for the Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes) in Canada 

Species at Risk Act recovery strategy series, recovery strategy for the Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes) in Canada.

Species at Risk Act
Recovery strategy series

Black-footed Ferret

About the Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series

What is the Species at Risk Act (SARA)?

SARA is the Act developed by the federal government as a key contribution to the common national effort to protect and conserve species at risk in Canada. SARA came into force in 2003 and one of its purposes is "to provide for the recovery of wildlife species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened as a result of human activity."

What is recovery?

In the context of species at risk conservation, recovery is the process by which the decline of an endangered, threatened or extirpated species is arrested or reversed, and threats are removed or reduced to improve the likelihood of the species' persistence in the wild. A species will be considered recovered when its long-term persistence in the wild has been secured.

What is a recovery strategy?

A recovery strategy is a planning document that identifies what needs to be done to arrest or reverse the decline of a species. It sets goals and objectives and identifies the main areas of activities to be undertaken. Detailed planning is done at the action plan stage.

Recovery strategy development is a commitment of all provinces and territories and of three federal agencies -- Environment Canada, Parks Canada Agency, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada -- under the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk. Sections 37–46 of SARA outline both the required content and the process for developing recovery strategies published in this series.

Depending on the status of the species and when it was assessed, a recovery strategy has to be developed within one to two years after the species is added to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Three to four years is allowed for those species that were automatically listed when SARA came into force.

What's next?

In most cases, one or more action plans will be developed to define and guide implementation of the recovery strategy. Nevertheless, directions set in the recovery strategy are sufficient to begin involving communities, land users, and conservationists in recovery implementation. Cost-effective measures to prevent the reduction or loss of the species should not be postponed for lack of full scientific certainty.

The series

This series presents the recovery strategies prepared or adopted by the federal government under SARA. New documents will be added regularly as species are listed and strategies updated.

To learn more

To learn more about the Species at Risk Act and recovery initiatives, please consult the SARA Public Registry.

Recovery Strategy for the Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes) in Canada

June 2009

Recommended citation:

Tuckwell, J. and T. Everest. 2009. Recovery Strategy for the Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Parks Canada Agency, Ottawa. vii + 36 pp.

Additional copies:

Additional copies can be downloaded from the SARA Public Registry.

Cover illustration Credit

The Calgary Zoological Society

Également disponible en français sous le titre « Programme de rétablissement pour le Putois d'Amérique (Mustela nigripes) au Canada. »

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of the Environment, 2009. All rights reserved.

Content (excluding the cover illustration) may be used without permission, with appropriate credit to the source.


Under the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk (1996), the federal, provincial, and territorial governments agreed to work together on legislation, programs, and policies to protect wildlife species at risk throughout Canada. The Species at Risk Act (S.C. 2002, c.29) (SARA) requires that federal competent minister(s) prepare recovery strategies for listed Extirpated, Endangered and Threatened species.

The Minister of the Environment presents this document as the recovery strategy for the black-footed ferret as required under SARA. It has been prepared in cooperation with the jurisdictions responsible for the species, as described in the Preface. The Minister invites other jurisdictions and organizations that may be involved in recovering the species to use this recovery strategy as advice to guide their actions.

The goals, objectives and recovery approaches identified in the strategy are based on the best existing knowledge and are subject to modifications resulting from new findings and revised objectives.

This recovery strategy will be the basis for one or more action plans that will provide further details regarding measures to be taken to support protection and recovery of the species. Success in the recovery of this species depends on the commitment and cooperation of many different constituencies that will be involved in implementing the actions identified in this strategy. In the spirit of the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk, all Canadians are invited to join in supporting and implementing this strategy for the benefit of the species and of Canadian society as a whole. The Minister of the Environment will report on progress within five years.


This strategy was written by Joanne Tuckwell, Parks Canada Agency, Winnipeg, Manitoba and Tian Everest, Calgary Zoological Society, Calgary, Alberta, and in collaboration with the Canadian Black-footed Ferret / Black-tailed Prairie Dog Recovery Team.


This document required the dedication and commitment of many organizations and individuals across North America. The editors are especially indebted to the members of the Canadian Black-footed Ferret / Black-tailed Prairie Dog Recovery Team for their extensive contributions to this strategy.


Pat Fargey, Parks Canada Agency
Joanne Tuckwell, Parks Canada Agency


Bill Bristol, Agri-Environment Services Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Brad Dixon, Affected Landowner
Tian Everest, Calgary Zoological Society
Maria Franke, Toronto Zoo
David Gummer, Parks Canada Agency, formerly with the Royal Alberta Museum
Geoff Holroyd, Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada
Karson Legault, Rural Municipality of Val Marie
Sue McAdam, Ministry of Environment, Saskatchewan
Robert Sissons, Parks Canada Agency
Lorne Veitch, Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food

Associate Members:

Steve Forrest, World Wildlife Fund (U.S.)
J. Michael Lockhart, formerly of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Travis Livieri, Prairie Wildlife Research

Special thanks are extended to the participants, organizers and financial supporters of four key workshops:

  • Towards a Management Strategy for Black-tailed Prairie Dog and Black-footed Ferrets in Southwestern Saskatchewan (June 8 - 9, 2004 in Val Marie, Saskatchewan)
  • International Black-footed Ferret Recovery Workshop (April 1 - 4, 2005, Calgary Alberta)
  • Black-footed Ferret Recovery Strategy Workshop (September 8 - 10, 2005, Val Marie Saskatchewan)
  • Black-footed Ferret/Black-tailed Prairie Dog Recovery Team meeting (Sept 5 - 7, 2007 in Toronto, Ontario).

Knowledge contributions provided by the participants of these workshops are the basis for extensive sections of this document. Steve Forrest, Travis Livieri (Prairie Wildlife Research), Rurik List (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico), J. Michael Lockhart, Paul Marinari (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) and Randy Matchett (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) contributed valuable insights into black-footed ferret ecology and ferret recovery experiences in the U.S. and Mexico.

Pat Fargey and Shelley Pruss (Parks Canada Agency) provided important information and guidance on recovery strategy planning and the requirements of this document. Axel Moehrenschlager (Calgary Zoological Society) provided support throughout the writing process as well as valuable editorial contributions. Judy Toews (Parks Canada Agency) also assisted with the editing of this document. The time and valuable insights contributed by the participants of the community focus groups are also greatly appreciated.

Strategic environmental assessment statement

A strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is conducted on all Species at Risk Act recovery strategies, in accordance with the Cabinet Directive on the Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Proposals (2004). The purpose of a SEA is to incorporate environmental considerations into the development of public policies, plans, and program proposals to support environmentally sound decision-making.

Recovery planning is intended to benefit species at risk and biodiversity in general. However, it is recognized that strategies may also inadvertently lead to environmental effects beyond their intended benefits. Environmental effects, including impacts to non-target species and the environment, were considered during recovery planning. The SEA is not a separate document, but is incorporated directly into the recovery strategy in sections section1.4.2, section1.7 and section2.7 and is summarized below.

This recovery strategy will benefit the environment by reintroducing and promoting the recovery of the black-footed ferret in an area it had historically occupied. The recovery strategy will also have indirect positive effects. Potential black-tailed prairie dog (Special Concern) colony expansion will increase habitat for species such as the Burrowing Owl (Endangered) and swift fox (Endangered) and increase prey abundance for species such as the Golden Eagle and Ferruginous Hawk (Special Concern). Potential negative effects as a result of the recovery strategy include increased disease potential, decreases in habitat such as sagebrush communities, and destruction of invertebrate communities. The importance of these effects is unknown and each has been addressed in greater detail in section 1.7. There will be significant mortality of black-tailed prairie dogs (Special Concern) due to direct predation by black-footed ferrets and there is also potential for ferret predation on Burrowing Owls (Endangered) and Greater Sage-Grouse (Endangered). However, it is believed that ferrets do not have population level effects on these species in areas of the U.S. (Rodger et al. 2004).

Mitigation of the potential negative effects on species at risk will be addressed by working cooperatively with the affected species recovery teams on a regular basis, and monitoring of ferret activities, diet and habitat use, as well as population monitoring of other species at risk in the reintroduction area. Effects on other species at risk will be closely evaluated and management strategies for the ferrets will be modified if any detrimental effects are detected. Mitigation measures for other associated species are discussed in section 2.7. Strategies to address potential negative effects will be developed prior to implementing recovery actions and will be included in the ferret action plan.


SARA defines residence as: a dwelling-place, such as a den, nest or other similar area or place, that is occupied or habitually occupied by one or more individuals during all or part of their life cycles, including breeding, rearing, staging, wintering, feeding or hibernating [Subsection 2(1)].

Residence descriptions, or the rationale for why the residence concept does not apply to a given species, are posted on the SARA public registry.


This recovery strategy addresses the recovery of black-footed ferrets in Canada. Historically black-footed ferrets were found principally in southern Saskatchewan, although they also ranged into southern Alberta.

The Parks Canada Agency led the preparation of this recovery strategy with the members of the Canadian Black-footed Ferret / Black-tailed Prairie Dog Recovery Team. This strategy was developed in cooperation with the provincial and federal agencies responsible for this species and associated habitat (Saskatchewan Environment, Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food, Agri-Environment Services Branch of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service) as well as the Toronto Zoo, the Calgary Zoological Society, the Royal Alberta Museum, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the World Wildlife Fund and Prairie Wildlife Research.

Executive summary

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is a mid-sized member of the weasel family that inhabits grassland ecosystems where prairie dogs are present (Cynomys spp.). Once thought to be globally extinct, black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced in the United States, but remain extirpated in Canada. Historical data suggests the ferret's range once included southern Saskatchewan and southern Alberta. Recovering and reintroducing black-footed ferrets in Canada will contribute to North American ferret conservation efforts by re-establishing a wild-functioning ferret population at the northern edge of the species' distribution.

A successful conservation breeding program has been providing black-footed ferrets for reintroduction in the U.S. and Mexico since 1991. Sufficient animals are being produced from this program to facilitate reintroductions in Canada as well. The U.S. Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team (BFFRIT), coordinated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, will apply their knowledge and experience in managing black-footed ferrets to assist in a reintroduction in Canada. Extensive analyses and planning have already been completed in an effort to prepare for this reintroduction and will be detailed in an action plan that will follow this recovery strategy. This experimental reintroduction will be adaptively managed, involving frequent monitoring to mitigate threats and bolster the population with additional individuals when necessary. The lessons learned from the Canadian reintroduction will help inform other efforts to reintroduce black-footed ferrets across the international range of the species.

The primary threats to ferret recovery are sylvatic plague, natural disease (canine distemper virus and rabies) and predation. Additional threats include poisoning of Richardson's ground squirrels and black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), climate change (increased drought frequency) and reduced genetic diversity.

With only approximately 1000 hectares of prairie dog colonies in Canada, habitat limitations may present a significant challenge to ferret recovery. Black-footed ferrets are highly dependant on prairie dogs for prey and on their burrows for shelter, escaping predators, and rearing their young. Significant efforts may be required to ensure sufficient habitat exists to support the ferret recovery goal.

Black-footed ferret recovery is considered feasible in Canada. The recovery goal is to establish a wild population of black-footed ferrets in Canada with at least 80 percent probability of persisting for 20 years (i.e., less than 20 percent probability of extinction in 20 years). The determination of specific goals for population size are not feasible at this time because the number of ferrets the Canadian range will be able to support is not known. Many factors will be evaluated after the initial reintroductions to enable estimates of population goals for the future.

Recovery objectives, knowledge gaps, actions to date, specific steps to achieve the recovery objectives and measures of success are all described in this recovery strategy.

Critical habitat for black-footed ferrets is identified in this document and is defined by the limits of the prairie dog colonies in Canada based on their boundaries mapped in 2007. A list of activities likely to result in its destruction and a schedule of studies to further refine the critical habitat are also included. An action plan outlining the proposed reintroduction methodology is currently in draft form and will be completed by September 2009. Initial releases of black-footed ferrets will take place in the fall of 2009.

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