At a mere five pounds and not much larger than a housecat, the swift fox (Vulpes velox) is the smallest member of the dog family in North America. They were once common throughout the western grasslands. The Blackfeet Tribe of northern Montana was one of many native tribes that shared the landscape with them, and the animal was so important to the Tribe’s culture that their killing was forbidden. Sadly, like many grassland species of the time, swift foxes were eradicated from Montana and much of the Great Plains by the mid-1950s. Habitat loss and other threats certainly plagued the species, but the biggest threat came from the widespread use of poisons used to kill predators such as wolves and coyotes and ground squirrels such as prairie dogs and pocket gophers. Many of these poisons were so powerful they could kill not once, but twice: both the animals that ate it and any animals that preyed upon them. Compound 1080 was one such substance – a lethal poison that killed not only the animals targeted, but also many unfortunate bystanders like the swift fox, who either took poisoned bait or scavenged animals that had eaten the poison. Despite its importance to the landscape and the Blackfeet Tribe, the swift fox suddenly vanished.
Just across the international border from the Blackfeet nation, the disappearance of swift foxes from Canada had already led the Canadian government to begin reintroductions. The population began to take hold in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, but few foxes strayed south of the border to reoccupy Montana. It was clear that they could use some help. Urged on by the Canadian reintroduction success, Defenders of Wildlife, the Blackfeet Tribe and the Cochrane Ecological Institute – home of the Canadian swift fox captive breeding program – began working together to plan a reintroduction on Blackfeet tribal land. About 17 years ago, we started the first of several years of reintroductions of captive-bred swift foxes from Canada into Blackfeet Indian tribal lands, starting with 15 animals. By 2006, the reintroduction was deemed a success – the foxes had established the grasslands of the Blackfeet Reservation as their new home, and the population was growing.
Fast forward to today, and we are still curious about the swift foxes of the Blackfeet Reservation –have they continued to thrive? The swift fox is an indicator species – it can tell us a lot about the health of its grassland ecosystem. Swift foxes need large, unbroken expanses of short-grass prairie and healthy populations of prey to survive. Fewer swift foxes can mean something is damaging the ecosystem or impacting the many small mammal species the foxes depend on for food. By keeping track of them, we can get an idea of how the prairies are holding up. So we joined with biologists from the Blackfeet Nation, Oregon State University and World Wildlife Fund in a regional survey for the swift fox, lending our field expertise and motion-sensitive wildlife cameras to the cause.
A few weeks ago, I headed out to an area east of Glacier National Park in Browning, Montana to help set up the camera survey stations on the Blackfeet Reservation. The area is lovely swift fox habitat – they prefer flat short-grass prairie, so they do well where there is significant grazing (initially by bison, but nowadays by cows and horses instead) to keep the grass low. Our plan was to set up 35 camera stations on the Blackfeet Reservation. Our efforts here are part of a larger state-wide survey of potential swift fox habitat in Montana, with a goal of placing almost 2,000 camera stations to find swift foxes! Each station was set to attract a swift fox using deliciously gross-smelling bait. As the fox sniffs around the site, a motion-sensitive camera takes its photo. That’s just part of the data we hoped to collect. If we were really lucky, the fox would poop at the site so that DNA could be collected to determine the animal’s sex and lineage. Yes, wildlife field work is oft filled with such glamorous ways of gathering data!
The cameras were left out for about a week, and the results are IN! Our initial review found swift foxes at eight of the sites! A couple of photos showed more than one fox, so it’s likely that we “caught” more than eight different swift foxes on camera. Other curious species drawn to the stations were:
Coyotes (the primary predator of swift foxes)
Grizzly bears, a more common occurrence these days on the plains, though still quite a surprise to see one caught on film!
Badgers, another common hunter of the plains.
And of course, swift foxes!
We were thrilled to see such fantastic results from this survey. Determining where this rare carnivore lives today is critical for its conservation, and the information will help experts develop a plan to restore more swift foxes to the landscape where possible. It is very exciting to be a part of a large group of partners working together to complete a survey of this magnitude, and our combined efforts will inform swift fox conservation efforts well into the future.
This fox’s tale is a legacy of decades of conservation work. If it were not for groups like Defenders fighting for a ban on poisons like Compound 1080 in the 1980s, swift foxes could not survive today. And without the direct action of the Blackfeet Nation and Defenders bringing these animals home, swift foxes would still be missing from this landscape. Decades later, this species is once again fulfilling its role on at least a portion of the Montana prairie, helping make the grasslands of the Blackfeet Nation flourish for decades to come.