SHIRLEY BASIN — The baby swift fox was unimpressed.
He’d been caught sometime in the night Sept. 3 in a trap baited with bacon and sardines and was trying to nip at anyone who got remotely close. The young fox weighed less than a few pounds and had a low growl barely audible in the quiet, early morning air.
But Jessica Alexander, owner of Little Dog Wildlife out of Columbia Falls, Montana was used to angry swift foxes and wrangled his snout into her hand from inside the cloth bag where he’d been transferred.
“This one was a grumpy Gus in the trap,” Alexander said as she held him up to be sprayed with flea control.
The swift fox was one of 27 caught in the first two weeks of September in and around Wyoming’s Shirley Basin. They will be examined, treated for fleas and fitted with GPS collars before being released on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana. The project was years, decades even, in the making. It was a dream for the A’aniiih (Gros Ventre) and Nakoda (Assiniboine) tribes. For the first time in more than a century, the restored prairie on the reservation will have viable populations of swift foxes.
“This is completing the circle,” said Mike Fox, a tribal council member and former tribal fish and wildlife director. “We are bringing things back to where they once were.”
Swift foxes are the smallest wild canid in North America, known for being flighty and curious and building complex dens underground with many escape hatches. They’re roughly the size of a house cat—even the adults rarely weigh more than 5 pounds.
While they were never really the target of a mass extermination campaign like wolves, grizzly bears or mountain lions, their population plummeted to less than 10 percent of their original range by the late 1800s and early 1900s, said Hila Shamon, landscape ecologist for the Smithsonian Institution, which is working on the reintroduction.
Their systematic deaths were biproducts of mass poisoning and trapping held across the country’s Great Plains in an effort to eliminate prey species like prairie dogs and predators like coyotes and wolves. They also lost massive swaths of habitat as the plains were converted to agriculture.
So the turn of the 20th century, a species that once ranged from Canada to the Texas panhandle and northwest Montana to western Minnesota, was relegated to isolated pockets in places like Wyoming’s Shirley Basin. In the mid-90s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the swift fox warranted a place on the endangered species list, but the backlog of other species needing protection precluded a listing at the time.
Their populations slowly expanded as predator control was regulated. State, federal and tribal agencies along with conservation groups also began translocating swift foxes into states like Montana and South Dakota. They now live in about 40 percent of their historic range including Kansas, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. In 2001, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced swift foxes no longer warranted a listing.
Despite their successes, there are still portions of Montana and other states where they could use a helping hand, which is how The Smithsonian, Defenders of Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund, Game and Fish and Montana state and tribal officials began working together.
Fort Belknap Reservation has already restored healthy populations of bison and black-footed ferrets – two other species that rely on grasslands. Swift fox had been brought back to other areas around around the reservation, but they seemed unable to cross rivers necessary to successfully spread into Fort Belknap, Shamon said.
After years of meetings, models and plans, the group of agencies and nonprofits finalized a project calling for 40 or 50 swift foxes to be trapped each year for five years in either Wyoming, Kansas or Colorado and moved to the reservation.
This isn’t Wyoming’s first gift of swift foxes, said Nichole Bjornlie, the Game and Fish’s nongame mammal biologist. But even though about 250 swift foxes were removed periodically over the past couple decades, the state’s population continues to expand.
“Our matrix shows that swift fox are increasing even in the core area of their habitat in the eastern part of the state,” she said. “We’re also getting swift foxes in areas where we don’t have records, like Powell, Wamsutter, Pinedale and Big Piney.”
Wyoming lists swift fox as a species of greatest conservation need, primarily because of threats of habitat loss around areas like Gillette, Bjornlie said. They’re also particularly susceptible to being hit by cars since they tend to place their burrows near roads.
The small animals feed mostly on insects like grasshoppers and crickets, small rodents like mice and voles and, to a lesser degree, small birds like meadowlarks. They are curious, nocturnal, relatively easy to trap with bait like bacon or sardines, and can often be spotted near their dens in the prairie, Shamon said.
Unlike the red fox, swift fox tails have black tips, which make them relatively easy to identify even from a distance.
The first 22 swift foxes were released into Fort Belknap on Thursday and Friday. Tribal members are holding a ceremony for the animals Monday.
“After all these years,” said Fox, who has been working on restoring the swift fox since the ‘90s, “to see these critters on the ground – it’s great.”