The Steppe polecat is a carnivorous mammal found in Europe and Asia. It is very close to the European polecat in general appearance, proportions, and habits, though its body seems somewhat more elongated, due to its shorter guard hairs. The winter fur is soft and tall, with short, dense underfur and long, sparse guard hairs. The base color of the winter fur is very light yellowish or whitish-yellowish. The head is piebald, with the eye region and the upper side of the nose being covered by a brownish mask. Behind the mask, a white band crosses the head from cheek to cheek. The ears are completely white, while the throat is yellowish-white or almost white. Sometimes, the head is entirely white. The lower surface of the neck is dark blackish-brown or brown, while the chest and forelegs are black or blackish-brown. The abdomen is light, yellowish-straw in color. The base of the tail is light in color, while the tip is dark brown. The summer coat is shorter and coarser than the winter fur, with a more strongly developed ochreous or reddish tone. The head is, overall, darker than in winter, with greater contrast between the dark and white tones.
Steppe polecats occur from Central and Eastern Europe in the west through southern Russia, northern Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan to Mongolia and northern and western China. In 2014, they have been recorded in Upper Mustang, Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal. These animals live in steppes, shrubland, pastures, and cultivated fields.
Steppe polecats are nocturnal nomadic animals and typically only settle in one area until their prey, mainly ground squirrels, are extirpated. They do not hold sharply defined home ranges. Younger polecats are less sedentary, and often overnight in the burrows of ground squirrels, they have killed. Females nursing their litters are the most settled but will begin roaming once the kits are old enough to accompany them. Generally, Steppe polecats only occupy one home range for a few days or up to a few months. In winter, they are more active and will move 12-18 km (7.4-11 miles) a day. During heavy snowfall, they usually migrate to more favorable areas, such as along the slopes of steppe ravines, near settlements, and winter encampments. Steppe polecats do not usually dig their own burrow, instead using those of marmots, ground squirrels, hamsters, moles, voles, jerboas, and others, after slightly widening them. Their burrow is often poorly constructed, as they do not inhabit one long enough to warrant restructuring. Independently dug burrows are typically shallow and simple in construction. Steppe polecats prefer to live on their own and interact with each other only during the breeding season.
Steppe polecats are carnivores and prey on ground squirrels, hamsters, pikas, and young or injured adult marmots. Ground squirrels are their most frequent prey throughout the year; in warm periods, they are hunted on the surface, while in autumn they are excavated from their burrows. Along the shores of rivers and lakes, Steppe polecats hunt water voles, fish, chickens, and carrion. They may occasionally kill birds such as grey partridges and willow grouse.
Steppe polecats are polygynous meaning that males mate with more than one female. They usually breed between March and April. After the gestation period of 36-43 days, the female gives birth to 3-6 kits, though litters of 18 are also known. Kits are born blind and naked, with pale rose skin and a membrane over the ears. At birth, they measure 6.5-7 cm in length and weigh 4.5 grams. The eyes open after 28-34 days and the kits become more active, and even attempt to tear apart prey whilst still relying on the mother's milk. By the age of 45 days, they are able to hunt young ground squirrels and begin to target adults at the age of 60 days. The kits remain in the family burrow for 2-2.5 months and begin to disperse from July or later. They become reproductively mature at the age of 10 months and reach adulthood at the age of 2 years.
The main threats to Steppe polecats include persecution for their valuable fur, changes in steppe landscapes, and a decrease in their natural prey.
According to IUCN, the Steppe polecat is locally common and widespread throughout its range but no overall population estimate is available. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List but its numbers today are decreasing.
Steppe polecats play an important role in their ecosystem by killing large numbers of rodents harmful to agriculture and which spread disease; a single Steppe polecat can destroy at least 200 ground squirrels a year or 1,500 mouse-like rodents in winter alone.