Black-footed ferret kit first cloned endangered species

POWELL — An endangered species has been cloned for the first time, using cells from a black-footed ferret found in Park County more than three decades ago. The kit is the first new line of blood within the species since they were rescued from the Lazy BV Ranch outside Meeteetse in 1981, offering hope for the conservation-dependent species.

“This is huge,” said Ben Novak, lead scientist for the Revive and Restore project.

The California nonprofit organization is working with live cells in multiple experiments that includes both cloning ferrets and attempting to genetically modify the species to be disease-resistant. In 2018, a former leader at the organization said it would take years, but their fortunes soon changed.

“This actually happened a lot faster than we had anticipated because [the] incremental milestones to get there all went great,” said Novak.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the experiment out of concern that, without an appropriate amount of genetic diversity, the black-footed ferrets would become more susceptible to diseases and genetic abnormalities. When the original business — the name for a group of ferrets — was found on the Meeteetse ranch, many were infected with canine distemper. They’re also susceptible to sylvatic plague, which is contracted through fleas on prairie dogs, which are ferrets’ main food supply. At the time of the discovery in Meeteetse, the species was thought to be extinct and only 18 ferrets survived the rescue mission. However, seven were bred successfully in a federal program. Since then, more than 3,000 offspring have been reared, yet only about 300 exist in the wild. All were reintroduced in suitable habitat in several western states in 2016 — including outside of Meeteetse — by scientists at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center near Ft. Collins, Colorado.

The center replaced a smaller facility in Sybille Canyon, Wyoming, and provides an expanded outdoor area more closely simulating natural conditions. Raising captive-bred ferrets using techniques that mimic their wild environment has proven critical to improving their survival rate after release. 

The “groundbreaking” cloning effort to assist with species’ recovery resulted from a partnership among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners — including Revive & Restore, ViaGen Pets & Equine, San Diego Zoo Global and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

“The service sought the expertise of valued recovery partners to help us explore how we might overcome genetic limitations hampering recovery of the black-footed ferret,” said Noreen Walsh, director of the service’s Mountain-Prairie Region. “Although this research is preliminary, it is the first cloning of a native endangered species in North America, and it provides a promising tool for continued efforts to conserve the black-footed ferret.”

Robyn Bortner, captive breeding manager at the center, said problems associated with the ferrets’ lack of genetic diversity have been popping up.

“Due to their inbreeding they do have a slightly suppressed immune system,” Bortner said. “They are very susceptible to [gastrointestinal] problems and can die within 48 hours if left untreated.”

The kit, born in December, has been named Elizabeth Ann. She was created from the frozen cells of Willa, a black-footed ferret who lived in the Meeteetse area more than 30 years ago.

The young ferret has already seen more of the world than most of her kind.

The cells were shipped from San Diego to New York, where the cloning was conducted and the embryo carried by a domestic ferret. About three weeks later, Elizabeth Ann was born. Novak then drove the animal to Chicago and handed her off to Bortner for transport back to the captive breeding facility outside Ft. Collins.

Elizabeth Ann will soon have company, Novak said.

“We expect her to be joined by some twin cloned sisters, and hopefully, a cloned male for [them] to fall in love with and breed next year,” he said.

The cells for the first male clone were taken from a live ferret in the captive breeding program in 2019. Elizabeth Ann and any future cloned ferrets aren’t going to be bred into the wild population anytime soon, Novak said. 

“That’s why we’re making the additional clones. We’re going to be studying the health and fitness of the clones and their offspring … that we can then put through the trials and rigorous testing.”

The process has moved more rapidly than Revive and Restore expected, with Novak encouraged by black-footed ferret recovery coordinator Pete Gober and the service’s genomics group to “move it all the way forward.”

The first cloning of a mammal happened in 1996, when scientists copied a sheep named Dolly. Many mammals have been cloned since then, but the process is still considered to be in its infancy.

The ferret project has been ongoing for more than seven years, although Novak joined the team more recently; he’d previously worked abroad on an effort to bring back the extinct passenger pigeon. 

The moment Novak was introduced to Elizabeth Ann may be his greatest memory. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Novak was forced to travel to Colorado in his camper to avoid human contact. Then on New Year’s Eve he was able to spend 20 minutes with Elizabeth Ann.

“There are no words to describe the feeling of how perfect and grand and what a turning point is, literally holding history in your hands,” Novak said.

Zack Walker, Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s non-game bird and mammal supervisor, said recuperating ferret genetics for the captive breeding population is a positive step.

“At the end of the day it could help with survivability,” Walker said. “Giving ferrets additional gene [pools] will enable them to better adapt to the wild.”

But the department is still concentrating on habitat.

“The big conservation success, at least within the state, is the work we’ve done with landowners,” Walker said. “It’s not going to matter what we put out if we don’t have a place to put them.”

In Park County, that means working with Lenox Baker of the Pitchfork Ranch and Kristine and Alan Hogg at the Lazy BV; the historic ranch was where John and Lucille Hogg’s dog, Shep, brought in a black-footed ferret in 1981, after the species was declared extinct. 

The Game and Fish has received permission to dust for fleas at the Meeteetse release sites. The department is currently using the insecticide Deltadust (deltamethrin), on about 3,000 acres while sylvatic plague vaccine has been deployed on 1,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management and private lands.

The peanut butter-flavored oral sylvatic plague vaccine has been distributed throughout ferret habitats. According to recent U.S. Geological Survey research — which sampled 7,820 praire dogs at black-footed ferret release sites across the West — about 70% of wild prairie dogs ingested the bait.

“The most important issue is making sure the prey base is healthy,” Walker has said.

In Meeteetse, the Hoggs haven’t seen a ferret on their property since participating in a Game and Fish survey last year.

“They’re nocturnal and we kind of like to sleep at night,” said Kristine Hogg.

But finding the ferrets is more than just staying up late: Recent night surveys by the Game and Fish found only one ferret. Drought has been hard on the area and the prairie dog population has dropped significantly. The survey followed previous successful years, in which the Game and Fish documented litters being born in the wild from the 99 released ferrets. The species has an average life span of one to three years in the wild.

Walker confirmed that the population released in the Meeteetse area isn’t doing as well as hoped. 

“Plague was active there and they’ve lost some prairie dogs due to the dry weather,” Walker said. “Some supplemental releases were conducted and we’re hoping to see this year if they were able to survive.” 

For her part, Kristine Hogg has been amazed by the amount of care going into the project. It took 35 years after the ferrets were discovered to get them back on the landscape at the ranch. 

“The scientists that worked on this project are just phenomenal,” she said.

The couple is acquainted with the cloning process, used in the cattle and sheep business. “I’m a science guy,” Alan Hogg said.

But he questions plans by Revive and Restore to genetically modify ferrets.

“You have to go in to something like this with your eyes open. Usually, when you start something like that, you come up with something else,” he said. “There’s always some result on the other end that you can’t anticipate.” 

Walker said attitudes about moving to genetically altered ferrets depend on whether you’re a “purist.” 

“People are gonna have to really consider what they’re doing before they move in that direction,” he said.

Novak added that the time to start conservation efforts is before there is a chance threatened species may become extinct.

“Conservation almost always ends up reacting to crisis, rather than getting out ahead and being preventative,” he said. “We should be going out right now and getting cells from as many endangered species as we can and banking away tissues and cells, preserving things before species get rare. Hopefully, with traditional measures, we never have to use those.”

“But if we have them, then 30 years down the line when they’re useful, we can do what we’ve done with Elizabeth,” Novak said, “and we can bring the species back into the population.”