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Rare black-footed ferrets released in South Dakota park

RAPID CITY (AP) -- South Dakota's Wind Cave National Park has increased its population of one of the rarest mammals in North America, following the release this week of nine black-footed ferret kits.

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RAPID CITY (AP) - South Dakota's Wind Cave National Park has increased its population of one of the rarest mammals in North America, following the release this week of nine black-footed ferret kits.

The ferrets were born in captivity at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado. They'll feast on prairie dogs in the park in the southern Black Hills.

It's the third time the park has augmented its black-footed ferret population since re-establishing a population in 2007. The release is part of an ongoing effort to bring the endangered ferrets back from the brink of extinction.

Black-footed ferrets are native to the area and the broader Great Plains, but their numbers declined drastically as prairie dogs - their primary food source - suffered widespread eradication efforts by farmers and ranchers. They were thought to be extinct as recently as 1981, when a few ferrets were found in Wyoming. The find yielded efforts to breed ferrets in captivity for reintroduction to the wild.

It's not known exactly how many ferrets are in Wind Cave National Park, partly because the nocturnal animals are difficult to spot. Park biologist Dan Roddy estimates there are a couple of dozen.

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Getting through the winter and producing offspring will be a challenge for the young animals, Roddy said.

"Talk to me next spring and summer, and we'll see if we have kits," he said.

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