Investigation of Factors Affecting Black-Footed Ferret Litter Size
Understanding factors that influence recruitment can improve wildlife conservation. Endangered black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) rely on prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) for food and on prairie dog burrows for shelter. We hypothesized that younger female ferrets with greater densities of prairie dogs in their core use area and fewer adult ferrets in their respective prairie dog colony, would produce more kits due to age-dependent productivity, increased food resources, and decreased competition.
We used generalized linear mixed-effects regression and Akaike's information criterion adjusted for sample size (AICc) to rank models relating adult female black-footed ferret litter size (range 1–7 kits, n = 24 litters) to female age, core area density of prairie dogs, and adult ferret densities from 3 sites in the USA, 2005–2008. We included year and site as random effects in all models.
We observed great model uncertainty; the null model was most supported and received 44% of model weight (w). The next best-supported model included ferret density only (ΔAICc = 1.55, w = 0.20). Ferret density may not have been great enough to negatively affect prey acquisition and litter sizes. Mean litter size did not vary among female ages, but inference was limited because only one individual was >3 years old ( = 2.13 years, SD = 0.99). All adult females produced kits, suggesting that the observed minimum prairie dog density in ferret core use areas (12.3 individuals · ha-1) was above a threshold of minimal prey abundance for reproduction.
Our findings support previous selections of reintroduction sites as those meeting minimum resource needs of individual ferrets for reproduction. Future selections of reintroduction sites may become more difficult if the number of areas with the minimum necessary prairie dog density decreases due to disease and reductions in habitat availability.