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Black-Footed Ferrets Embark On Next Chapter Of Epic Comeback

<p><a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmtnprairie/" style="text-decoration: none;">USFWS Mountain Prairie</a>/<a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmtnprairie/5244106199/sizes/m/" style="text-decoration: none;">Flickr</a>/ CC BY 2.0</p>

Black-footed ferrets are "one of the most endangered animals in the world," according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The two-foot-long mammals - who look similar to pet ferrets - vanished from the wild late last century, felled by the twin blasts of plague and culled prairie dogs, the ferrets' main source of prey.

But thanks to releases following a captive breeding program, the ferrets once again have a toehold in parts of their historic habitats. Arizona Game and Fish Department director Larry Voyles said: "No question the black-footed ferret is an epic conservation success story," the Tucson Sentinel reports. Some 500 wild ferrets and 300 captive ferrets can trace their origins back to just 18 animals captured in 1985.

(YouTube/Arizona Game And Fish)

Wednesday marked the start of the ferrets' next chapter in Arizona. The USFWS released 25 animals on a private ranch, in the hopes of establishing a second self-sustaining population in the southwestern state. Conservationists are also using the site to test bait spiked with a vaccine for the plague.

And although a vaccine would be a boon, the most important factor to the ferret's future is a healthy prairie dog population. "The single, most feasible action that would benefit black-footed ferret recovery is to improve prairie dog conservation," said Pete Gober, a Black-footed Ferret Recovery Coordinator with the Fish and Wildlife Service, in a December 2013 statement. Arizona's newest ferret residents are in luck - the ranch "is sprawling grassland with a thriving population of prairie dogs," as the Tucson Sentinel puts it.

Black-footed ferret kits, born at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in May 2011. (USFWS Mountain Prairie/Flickr/ CC BY 2.0)