An excited group of naturalists and wildlife scientists is in Saskatchewan's Grasslands National Park, releasing black-footed ferrets back into the wild.
The Friday event was the culmination of several years of work to breed black-footed ferrets in various zoos and condition the animals to survive in the wild.
Grasslands National Park, in Saskatchewan's southwest, was selected as the site for introducing 34 animals back to their natural habitat. A recovery plan for the species includes releasing more animals to the park in 2010.
The black-footed ferret is the only species of ferret indigenous to North America.
Populations fell to near-extinction levels until a small colony was discovered in Wyoming in 1981. Those animals were used to begin the recovery program.
"This is the prime time to be putting them back into the wild," Scott Larson, an assistant field supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told CBC News on Friday. "Every fall [we] have a batch of kits that we raise in captivity that are made available to go back to reintroduction sites."
Larson is part of a team of American and Canadian scientists working on the species' recovery. He noted that various zoos have contributed to the effort, including the Toronto Zoo and the Calgary Zoo.
"With partners, like the Toronto Zoo, we've been able to raise over 6,000 ferret kits in captivity," Larson said. Some of those animals go to sites already established for reintroduction in the United States and Mexico. Others are used to ensure the breeding stock is healthy.
The plan on Friday was to release two of the animals in the afternoon in one location. The rest would be released around dusk at eight other locations in the park.
The ferrets will be set free near known colonies of prairie dogs, the ferrets' source of food.