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How the Black-footed Ferret Project Began—Thinking Outside The Box

It was in 2013 that Seth Willey, a regional recovery coordinator with the US Fish And Wildlife Service, contacted Revive & Restore with the following email. You never know how impactful ideas may become, so always send that email!

From: Seth Willey
Sent: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 9:20 AM
To: Ryan Phelan, Stewart Brand
Subject: Outside the box question

Hello Ryan Phelan and Stewart Brand,

My name is Seth Willey. I work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species program. I understand through media reports that your organization is working to revive lost species and conserve existing ones. I have an outside-the-box question I’ve been toying with which I thought you might be able to provide some feedback to.

Black-footed ferrets are the only ferret native to North America and are one of the most endangered mammals in the world. The species was twice assumed extinct, before being rediscovered in 1981 by a ranch dog named “Shep” in Meeteetse, Wyoming. Shortly thereafter these animals were brought into captivity. Today, we have a robust captive population and a few hundred wild animals across a ~twenty sites. Three of these sites are considered stable.

Because all of these animals came from 7 founders, one concern is the species’ relative lack of genetic diversity (I think it is second only to the Cheetah among mammals). The SSP has done a remarkable job of preserving the genetic material available, and even used frozen DNA through in vitro fertilization to reintroduce DNA from some of the original founders. However, genetic diversity remains relatively low given the starting point.

So, I have been toying with the idea of whether similar techniques to ongoing de-extinction efforts could be used to revive the Black-footed ferret’s lost genetic diversity. Ferrets were first brought into captivity in the 1960s from a South Dakota population, but these animals died. Between these relatively recent samples (which I’m told are at the Smithsonian) and other more ancient DNA, combined with existing animals to fill in the genetic blanks, I’m wondering if the technology is yet ripe to help address this issue.

At this point, I am far short of a proposal or even an ask. I am mostly curious if you think this is yet feasible and whether you think this is worth pursuing at this point.

Thinking outside the box!

Seth

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Seth L. Willey
Regional Recovery Coordinator &
Assistant ESA Chief, Region 6

[U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service]

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Learn more about our progress and Elizabeth Ann, the world’s first cloned Black-footed ferret. https:www.reviverestore.org/bff