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April 9: Black-Footed Ferret

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A male black-footed ferret, killed in 1951 by a farmer near Mott, North Dakota, is seen outside the State Archives in Bismarck, North Dakota, on Jan. 22, 2024.
Jack Dura
A male black-footed ferret, killed in 1951 by a farmer near Mott, North Dakota, is seen outside the State Archives in Bismarck, North Dakota, on Jan. 22, 2024.

Few critters in North Dakota might be as storied as the black-footed ferret – an endangered and mischievous species. Poisonings targeting prairie dogs led to the ferret’s demise in the early 20th century, and it was thought to be extinct until a small group was found in Wyoming in 1981. The ferret’s comeback through captive breeding has been decades in the making.

The ferret has a long, light-colored body and black eye mask. They eat prairie dogs, and historically roamed in western North Dakota. Theodore Roosevelt, who hunted and ranched in the Badlands in the 1880s, wrote about the ferret saying: “It is a most bloodthirsty little brute, feeding on all small animals and ground birds. It will readily master a jack-rabbit, will kill very young fawns if it finds them in the mother’s absence, and works extraordinary havoc in a dog town, as it can follow the wretched little beasts down into the burrows.”

In 1909, several historians and scientists and their Native guides embarked on a three-week trip down the Missouri River from Fort Berthold to Fort Rice. Along the way, they snared and killed a black-footed ferret as it poked out of a prairie dog hole. They took the specimen to Bismarck where it was identified as a black-footed ferret – considered even then to be “a very rare animal.” The men saw two other ferrets in the dog town, killing prairie dogs “right and left.”

On this date in 1951, Bismarck Tribune readers learned that a Mott-area farmer had recently killed a black-footed ferret with a pitchfork. The ferret had attacked his dog. The farmer spotted a second ferret at the time, but that one didn’t attack. The killed ferret was mounted at the University of Iowa and is now held by the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

In 1954, officials of Theodore Roosevelt National Park planned to bring in three pairs of black-footed ferrets from South Dakota to keep prairie dogs in check.

Following their near extinction, black-footed ferrets are making a comeback. In 2021, on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, federal and tribal wildlife officials released 28 ferrets, followed by another release 2022.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


  • The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. 1909, September 2. Page 9: Interesting historical finds made along banks of Missouri
  • Steele County Press. 1949, June 30. Page 3: Official description and history of TR park given
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1951, April 9. Page 6: Black-footed ferret killed by Mott man
  • Mott Pioneer Press. 1951, April 12. Page 1: Rare animal killed by farmer near Mott
  • Steele County Press. 1951, June 7. Page 7: Bighorn sheep to be added to Roosevelt park
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1953, January 28. Page 1: Browsing around; Ferret
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1954, October 2. Page 6: Big game plan laid for Medora park area
  • The Hope Pioneer. 1958, April 3. Page 1: Department obtains ferret for display
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1961, July 10. Page 6: Rare ‘ferret’ sought in N.D.
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1971, December 21. Page 20: Kit foxes, ferrets fading from prairies
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 2021, November 15. Page A1: Endangered ferret species released in Standing Rock. Retrieved from: bismarcktribune.com/news/local/tribal-news/endangered-black-footed-ferrets-introduced-on-standing-rock/article_c33d369e-5ebe-554a-9c17-5484156ff6c4.html
  • Toivonen, L., Oles, M. 2023, May 16. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. A partnership that brings the black-footed ferret back home. Retrieved from: fws.gov/story/2023-05/partnership-brings-black-footed-ferret-back-home
  • Roosevelt, T. (2009). Ranch life and the hunting trail. Dover Publications: Garden City, New York. Page 41
  • North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Black-footed ferret. Retrieved from: gf.nd.gov/wildlife/id/carnivores/black-footed-ferret
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Black-footed ferret. Retrieved from: fws.gov/species/black-footed-ferret-mustela-nigripes
  • Email communication with Nohner, Lori R. 2024, January 22. Male Black-footed Ferret. 1951. SHSND 11689.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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