El Paso Zoo Director Steve Marshall Participates in a Conservation Mission
El Paso Zoo Director Steve Marshall just returned from Mexico last week, after participating in a conservation effort for one of the most endangered mammals in North America; the Black-footed Ferret. The Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team (BFFRIT) was created in 1996 and is a multi-agency/ conservation organization effort, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which includes representatives from federal and state governments, accredited zoos and nonprofit organizations.
El Paso Zoo Director Steve Marshall joined team members in Chihuahua, Mexico as they released Black-footed Ferrets that have been bred by team members to reintroduce populations in Mexico. The total wild population numbers only around 600 individuals.
"As a point of reference," Mr. Marshall added, "That makes them rarer in the wild than Giant Pandas."
In the late 1970's black footed ferrets were believed to be extinct. A small population was rediscovered in 1981, but by 1987 the number had drastically fallen. In a bold move, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relocated the last remaining 18 animals from the wild and eventually into managed breeding programs in accredited zoos. The success of this effort is apparent. The managed program currently maintains a breeding population of 240 ferrets that are 1-3 years old.
In reference to his personal involvement Mr. Marshall said, "I always considered myself in tune to this type of effort, but going along on this release project reminded me of the feeling
of responsibility, partnership, and connection with nature that we strive to allow our guests and school groups to experience at the Zoo." Mr. Marshall continued, "The El Paso Zoo wants to get more involved with projects like this. While in Mexico, I met wonderfully smart and dedicated participants in this particular project: conservationists and wildlife biologists from the State of Chihuahua, the Mexican University System, World Wildlife Fund, and the Nature Conservancy."
Conservationists such as Mr. Marshall hope that the ferrets will be successful in re-inhabiting former parts of their range in Mexico, and here in the U.S. - where projects are also underway in an ongoing repopulation effort. The El Paso Zoo has been a part of the official program for more than 2 years, and has taken part in the repopulation projects in the past, as well as conducting biomedical assessments such as drawing blood or checking vital stats on the animals before they cross the border. Black Footed Ferrets remain near the brink of extinction due to loss of habitat, conversion of grasslands to agricultural uses, widespread prairie dog eradication programs and plague which combined have reduced ferret habitat to less than 2 percent of what once existed. Remaining habitat is now fragmented, with prairie dog towns separated by great expanses of cropland and human development. Many other sensitive species such as burrowing owls, mountain plovers, golden eagles, swift fox, and ferruginous hawks are strongly linked to this habitat for their survival. Many of these species are following the ferret's fate, and may soon require further conservation efforts to ensure their survival.
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