Swift foxes have been absent from the shortgrass prairie of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana for more than half a century. But last month, that changed when the Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) Tribes of Fort Belknap reintroduced 27 swift foxes to the reservation, restoring a piece of the Great Plains ecosystem and a part of the tribes’ natural heritage.
For the tribes of Fort Belknap, restoring and maintaining their natural environment has been a priority for decades. The tribes reintroduced buffalo to the reservation’s 675,147 acres of prairie in the 1970s and the herd, centered around a 22,000-acre plot at Snake Butte, is now close to 800 strong. Fort Belknap also brought back black-footed ferrets via reintroductions in the 1990s and early 2000s.
But these reintroductions aren’t just about the environment, says Mike “Gopher” Fox, who is part of the Fort Belknap Tribal Council and a member of the Gros Ventre tribe.
“We don’t look at animals as just four legged or winged, we look at them as family,” says Fox. “For us it was like part of our family was missing all those years. Bringing the buffalo, the black-footed ferret and now the swift fox back, bringing those family members back home, connects us to our history with this land. It gives us a lot of pride as Natives.”
The swift fox weighs just around five pounds and is the smallest wild canine in mainland North America. The animals occupy one main den and several sattelite dens year-round, which they sometimes annex from local prairie dog colonies. The foxes use these burrows and blistering speed—bursts of up to 40 miles-per-hour—to capture prey and escape their main predator, the coyote.
Swift foxes (Vulpes velox) once roamed the Great Plains from Canada all the way to Texas. But in the late 1800s, efforts to exterminate coyotes and wolves with poison and traps hammered the swift fox population, reducing its numbers by more than 90 percent. More recently, successful reintroductions in Canada and elsewhere in Montana beginning in the 1980s have helped these house cat-sized foxes reclaim around 40 percent of their traditional range.
But these reintroductions to the northern part of the swift fox’s range remain fragile, with just over 1,000 animals living along the Montana-Canada border. These northern foxes are separated from the much larger core population to the south by a gap of roughly 200 miles.
This isolation makes the northern swift fox populations more vulnerable to being snuffed out by disease, drought and other disasters, says Hila Shamon, an ecologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) who collaborated with the tribes of Fort Belknap on the reintroduction project. Bringing swift fox back to Fort Belknap will help fill in the gap between the northern and southern populations, which is essential for species’ genetic diversity and long-term recovery, according to Shamon.
After two years of planning and research, the reservation’s new foxes were captured in late August and early September in Wyoming's Albany and Carbon counties. The effort was a collaboration between Fort Belknap, SCBI, Defenders of Wildlife and the World Wildlife Fund, that sent teams fanning out across the prairie to set metal box traps baited with bacon and sardines.
Jessica Alexander, owner and biologist at Little Dog Wildlife Inc. who trapped foxes for the initiative, says they caught as many as eight foxes in a single night. For the members of the team who went out to check the traps in the pre-dawn hours, success sounded like the diminutive canine's throaty growl emanating from inside one of the metal traps. After giving the foxes a health check and a GPS collar, Alexander and the other team members moved them to Fort Belknap. When the foxes arrived on the reservation, wildlife professionals put the wily critters inside carefully selected patches of fenced-in habitat that featured abandoned prairie dog burrows—a swift fox's favorite refuge—and simply opened up a gap in the fence after three to five days. This release technique, called a soft release, is meant to help the animals acclimate to their new environs and reduce the stress of relocation.
“A number of the foxes tunneled out of the enclosures, but for the ones that stuck around we would just open up the pen,” says Tim Vosburgh, Fort Belknap’s tribal wildlife biologist. “Nearly all the foxes I released didn’t sprint off the way you might expect. They mostly stayed put—they felt comfort in having a burrow nearby.”
The releases occurred between September 12 and 20 as part of a five-year recovery plan. In the second and third years of the project, foxes will come from Colorado and Kansas, respectively, before the cycle starts over again with Wyoming in year four. The goal of the project is to release between 40 and 50 foxes each year. More releases were planned for the fall of 2020 to reach the 40-animal threshold, but a recent surge in cases of COVID-19 on the reservation caused the plan to be postponed until next fall.
Restoring this icon of the prairie to its former glory could help add balance and resilience to the plains ecosystem. “They will help keep their prey species, like rabbits, prairie dogs, birds and even insects, in check,” says Kristy Bly, a conservation biologist with the World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains Program. “This is a piece of the patchwork quilt of the shortgrass prairie ecosystem being woven back in.”
Significantly, the swift fox is also being woven back into the fabric of Fort Belknap’s Indigenous culture. Most members of the community don’t have any memories of swift fox on the reservation. “Something can be missing even if you don’t know it’s missing,” says George Horse Capture Junior, who serves as the reservation’s tourism director. “Around 100 years ago, we used to have ceremonies around this animal, but before this reintroduction, I’d never seen one on the reservation.”
Horse Capture Jr., whose father helped launch the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, says the ceremony was a celebratory milestone for young men coming into their own as responsible and caring members of the tribal community, adding that the Cheyenne are known to still practice a version of the ceremony.
“Does having these animals back mean one of the young people, maybe trying to figure out who we were prior to the invasion and dislocation, will go down to the Cheyenne and ask for that ceremony back?” Horse Capture Jr. wonders. “Will the swift fox be another part of the jigsaw puzzle to help piece ourselves back together?”
On September 14, the Fort Belknap community held a socially distanced pipe ceremony to commemorate the release of several foxes out onto the prairie. The ceremony included singing, prayers for the well-being of the animals and remarks from tribal leaders. The event was also attended by young people from the nearby tribal college and other community members who came to see the reintroduction.
Even as COVID-19 makes life almost unrecognizable by forcing isolation in a community defined by close relationships, Fox says the reintroduction ceremony was a breath of fresh air. “It was something to take your mind off of COVID and politics, just a relief that something good happened.”
The GPS collars on the released foxes will allow Vosburgh and others to monitor the population, and assess how many of the relocated foxes survive and reproduce. Vosburgh says a successful swift fox reintroduction at Fort Belknap could provide a model for other reservations such as the Crow or Northern Cheyenne in southern Montana, or even someday supply foxes for other relocation projects.
At the release event, Horse Capture Jr. stared at one of the swift foxes, which he admitted were “so cute you wanted to hug the fart out of them,” and thought about the lost ceremony they inspired.
“You helped my ancestors by giving them a ceremony, and now I’m seeing you come back,” says Horse Capture Jr. “Yes, it’s on a reservation, something mandatory we were both put on, but you connect our future to the past—before this was Fort Belknap, before this was Montana or the United States of America. . . Seeing this animal, and seeing the young people who came to watch its return to our land, it gives me hope.”