Biologists hope to return the black-footed ferret to Saskatchewan's south-west, after a 70-year absence. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

 Wildlife enthusiasts are hoping Saskatchewan could be home, once again, to the black-footed ferret, a creature once thought to have been wiped off the ecological map.

The ferret, which has a bandit-like mask and distinctive black paws, used to be common in many prairie habitats, including Saskatchewan's grasslands in the south-west corner of the province. It is the only species of ferret native to North America.

The last reliable sighting of the animal in Saskatchewan was recorded in 1937, according to Pat Fargey, a species at risk biologist at Grasslands National Park.

Although its range extended through the United States and into Mexico, by the 1970's it was believed the animal was extinct.


The black-footed ferret is now bred mainly in captivity. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

 Paul Marinari, a wildlife biologist at the Black-footed Ferret Conservation Centre in Colorado, told CBC News that the ferret is highly dependent on its prey: the prairie dog. When that animal became more scarce, due to disease and agriculture practices, ferret numbers nose-dived.

"It was kind of those diseases and encroachment upon their habitat that caused their decline," Marinari said. "But we've done quite well with captive breeding."

Marinari said there are now an estimated 6,500 black-footed ferrets, up from the 130 estimated in the early 1980s.


There are six centres in North America, including the Toronto Zoo, where the black-footed ferret is bred. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

 Almost all of the 6,500 were produced in captivity at six different centres, including the Toronto Zoo.

The goal is to reintroduce the animals to their natural settings. Marinari said there are a number of reintroduction sites in the United States and Mexico.

"What we try and do here is save the species," Marinari said. "Our ultimate goal is to recover the animal [and] get it back in the wild. And close the door on captive breeding."

In Canada, biologist Pat Fargey has been examining the viability of reintroducing the ferret to the grasslands.

"We believe that we now have a suitable home here for ferrets," Fargey told CBC News. He pointed out that the Grasslands National Park has a prairie dog population that would be a reliable source of food for the ferrets.

Fargey said consultations about the park's plan to bring in ferrets have been ongoing and should conclude later this summer.