Forty black-footed ferrets, some from the Toronto Zoo, will be reintroduced to their natural habitat in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan in the fall of 2009. ((U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service))

A plan to return the black-footed ferret to its once familiar southwest Saskatchewan habitat has been approved, with about 40 critters to set up home once they've been pre-conditioned at a Colorado boot camp for ferrets.

The announcement was made at the Toronto Zoo on Friday. The Toronto Zoo is one of seven places in North America where the black-footed ferret is being bred for eventual release into its natural habitats.

"At one point it was the most endangered mammal in North America," Joanne Tuckwell, the co-chair of the black-footed ferret recovery strategy team from Parks Canada, told CBC News on Friday. "But we've had captive breeding going on since a population was found in Wyoming."

Since then, the animal's numbers have risen to an estimated 6,500 from a mere 130 in the early 1980s.

With Friday's announcement, Saskatchewan's Grasslands National Park will become the next location for reintroducing the species to its natural habitat.

The park boundaries generally coincide with what scientists believe were the natural range of the black-footed ferret in Canada.


'The time was right to reintroduce ferrets' —Joanne Tuckwell, Parks Canada

The black-footed ferret relies on the prairie dog for its food source. That animal is available in the Grasslands, although scientists are hoping the ferret will also be able to dine on ground squirrels, or gophers.

"The gophers are smaller [than prairie dogs]," Tuckwell pointed out, "so, in the United States, the ferrets tend not to focus on them because they have a harder time getting into their burrows."

Canadian gophers, however, are slightly larger than their American cousins.

"We think they might be able to rely on ground squirrels more in Canada than they do in the U.S.," Tuckwell said. "So there is some hope that they will feed on gophers."

Tuckwell said Canada will benefit from the experience of the United States in its efforts to reintroduce the black-footed ferret in about 18 locations in that country. She added that the Americans were being very generous with their resources and expertise.

"The time was right to reintroduce ferrets [to Canada]," Tuckwell said. However, before they arrive, the animals — some of which will come from the Toronto Zoo — must be pre-conditioned to live in the wild.

"They're born in captivity and they're not eating live prey," Tuckwell explained. So, to help them make the transition, a centre in Colorado was established where they could learn their natural ways. "Boot camp is what we're calling it, and they're taught how to eat live prairie dogs.

"And then, once they can hunt and live in their burrows and eat live prairie dogs, they are going to be driven to Canada and released."

Tuckwell said 40 animals would be released this fall and another 30 to 40 in the fall of 2010 and 2011.

"There will definitely be some Toronto ones, but there will be others," Tuckwell said, to ensure a good genetic mix.

Volunteers needed to monitor survival

Nature enthusiasts will also get to play a role in the followup work associated with the reintroduction of the animals.

About one month after the release, officials said they will go into the area to count the ferrets, to see how they are doing. Tuckwell said that will involve using large spotlights at night.

"We can find the ferrets, they come out at night, and with the big spotlights you can see their eyes shining," Tuckwell explained. She said volunteers would be recruited to help with that.

"It's a large area where the prairie dogs are and in order to find all the ferrets, we're going to need a lot of help," Tuckwell said. "And it's a great visitor-experience opportunity, to get involved and see these creatures."

More monitoring will take place in the spring of 2010 to see how many survived the winter.

"It's a great opportunity to recover a species at risk," Tuckwell said, noting that it would not have been possible without the assistance of the United States and the participation of the Toronto Zoo.