A diminutive, nocturnal, prairie resident, although out of public view, is north-central Montana's small success story.
Weighing only four-to six pounds, the swift fox is making a comeback.
Brian Giddings, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Furbearer Coordinator said that there is no record of a swift fox in Montana between 1918 and 1978. Montana FWP listed swift fox as extirpated--extinct within Montana--in 1959.
Most biologists agree that swift fox were an integral part of the landcape when the first Euro-American explorers of "the west" arrived in the early 1800s. Meriwether Lewis reported swift fox near the Missouri and Marias Rivers in 1805 and 1806.
Giddings said two practices that led to reduction of swift fox in Montana were loss of prairie habitat through farming and unlimited trapping. He also said that swift fox can only survive in short-grass prairie habitat like that found east of the Rocky Mountains. Swift fox spend most daylight hours in burrows. Their food choices include ducks and native ground-nesting birds in the spring, small mammals like ground squirrels most of the year and lots of grasshoppers in August and September.
Records of Hudson Bay Company show that 117,025 swift fox pelts were sold in London between 1835 and 1877. Hudson Bay Company had trappers throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Montana.
Giddings, a 20-year veteran of FWP, said that historically, swift fox scavenged wolf-killed bison, and with the elimination of bison, so went some swift fox. He added that poison set for wolves and prairie dogs during the late 1800s and early 1900s eliminated most Montana swift fox.
In 1972, the Canadian government developed the Cochrane Ecological Institute in Alberta to study and raise captive swift fox for later release in the wild. Giddings said Canadian biologists released swift fox along the U.S. border only to find half were "escaping" to the U.S.
In 1978, in order to protect swift fox, FWP classified them as furbearers and closed swift fox to trapping, Giddings said.
Giddings also added that the Swift Fox Conservation Team, a group of biologists representing wildlife departments of 10 states, have been working for sustainable numbers of swift fox, and have developed state-controlled management plans rather than depending on federal management and Endangered Species status. The states that comprise the SFCT are Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming, North Dakota and Colorado. Giddings added that the program's true success is that only 1 to 1.5 million dollars has been spent on swift fox conservation by all 10 states since inception in 1994.
About the same time that the SFCT was formed, the Cochrane facility approached the Blackfeet Nation (in the U.S.) with an offer to continue the swift fox breeding and release operation, said Minette Johnson, Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife. Johnson said Defenders decided to pay for logistics and maintenance of Cochrane, as they believed the Blackfeet Nation had some of the best remaining short-grass prairie in Montana. In 1998, the Blackfeet reintroduced 30 juveniles from Cochrane to an area near the Two Medicine and Badger Creek drainages. From 1998 through 2003, 122 swift fox were released on Blackfoot land.
Johnson said Defenders' previous experience with wolves showed that reintroductions were costly, time consuming, and polarizing. She said swift fox reintroduction had none of those elements. The 1998 release cost about $30,000. This winter (2005), seven years after the first release, a census will be conducted to determine population and density of swift fox on both sides of the Montana-Canada border. Johnson said it is expected to be so successful that reintroduction will halt in that area. She also noted that since swift fox do not impact livestock and only kill small mammals like gophers and prairie dogs, farmers and ranchers tend to like them.
One of the people doing this winter's census is University of Montana graduate student David Ausband, who has been studying swift fox on the Blackfeet Nation for four years. Ausband said that last month he trapped and radio-collared two juvenile swift fox located south of Montana's Sun River, 70 miles south of the Blackfeet tribal land.
Ausband added, "It's pretty awesome to come to know individual foxes. Even with a scientist's detached perspective, it is hard not to watch an animal from mother--to birth--to mating--to death and not feel an attachment to the animal."
While swift fox numbers currently look great, Giddings, Johnson and Ausband said they worried that future loss of short-grass prairie would mean loss of swift fox.