Black-Footed Ferrets and Other Endangered Critters

The subject of endangered species can be a depressing one, but there are also many reasons to be hopeful

Black-footed ferrets at the National Zoo
Black-footed ferrets at the National Zoo Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian's National Zoo

In honor of today, Endangered Species Day, I put together a photo essay on North America’s most endangered animals. To get a list of 10, I started by searching through the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which is probably the most reliable source of data on this topic. With hundreds of endangered animals, I had to limit my search to species that were Critically Endangered or Extinct in the Wild. Merely “Endangered” wasn’t enough. And so I had to leave out one of the cutest, and most familiar, endangered animals of North America: the black-footed ferret.

There were once tens of thousands of black-footed ferrets living on Western prairies. But disease, habitat destruction and efforts to eliminate their main prey, the pesky prairie dog, drove them nearly to extinction. By 1986, the only black-footed ferret survivors lived in captivity. But reintroduction efforts, which began in 1991, have been successful at about half of the 19 sites where they have been tried, and the wild population now numbers around 750 animals. The ultimate goal is to have about 1,500 ferrets and at least 10 populations with 30 or more breeding adults.

When I looking into the subject of endangered animals, I thought that whatever I wrote was going to be incredibly depressing. But instead, I found so many reasons to be hopeful. Identifying the fact that a species is dwindling in numbers isn’t the end. That recognition often prompts scientists, conservationists, government officials and the public to take action. And so we have people scouring Panama for new species of frogs, hoping to save them before a deadly fungus reaches their home, and others rearing all kinds of critters in captivity—from tree snails to condors—in an effort to preserve them from extinction.

What would you do to help save a species from disappearing forever?

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