The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is one of the rarest mammal species in North America. Captive breeding has prevented extinction of this species, but successful reintroduction of ferrets into their native grassland habitat is a complex endeavor. As specialist predators, ferrets depend almost exclusively on prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) for both food and shelter, so successful black-footed ferret reintroduction hinges on maintaining large colonies of prairie dogs. However, prairie dogs are also considered agricultural pests and are often subjected to eradication programs. These eradication programs hamper efforts to reintroduce ferrets and disrupt the valuable ecosystem services prairie dogs provide in their role as both keystone and foundation species. Even when agreements are reached to maintain prairie dog colonies, plague (Yersinia pestis), which infects both prairie dogs and ferrets, can threaten the success of a ferret reintroduction program. We describe the research on the complex ecological relationships and socio-environmental challenges of reintroducing endangered black-footed ferrets, with a focus on the most abundant prairie dog species, the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus).

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