At first, all that stuck out was a pair of ears. But when the cage opened on the windswept plains of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in central Montana, out crept the first swift fox to tread on Blackfeet soil in three decades. A few of the foxes darted straight into the portable A-frames positioned over unoccupied badger holes, their lodging of choice. The two-foot-high temporary shelters would protect them from coyotes, eagles and hawks for two weeks, until they oriented themselves. Others held back, cautious, until curiosity and freedom got the best of them.
The previous night, Minette Johnson of the Defenders of Wildlife had camped nearby, keeping watch over the soon-to-be-released family groups that had just arrived from a captive-breeding facility in Canada. “What really impressed me was how well they fit in,” Johnson said. “It was as if they had never left.” By late afternoon on the cloudless August day in 1998, the big sky country had welcomed home 30 of the small, speedy and mostly nocturnal predators, with the help of Defenders of Wildlife. Defenders is a national conservation organization focused on habitat restoration and predator protection.
Absent from Montana since the 1960s, these five-pound predators of mice and grasshoppers once roamed the Great Plains from Canada to Texas. Unfortunately, human activities have taken their toll – namely, trapping, destruction of their habitat for agricultural development and the poisons intended for wolves, coyotes, prairie dogs and ground squirrels. Today only Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming maintain stable swift fox populations and their appearance in Nebraska and the Dakotas is questionable.
In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had found that protecting swift foxes was warranted, but precluded by higher wildlife priorities. State wildlife officials appeared satisfied by the rare sightings of dispersing foxes from Wyoming or Canada. The Canadian population, declared extirpated (totally removed) in 1978 – 40 years after traps claimed the last one – was restored under a government program that began in 1983. Considered a success – some 300 now roam southern Saskatchewan and Alberta – the reintroduction program was dissolved by government officials in 1998. That’s when Defenders of Wildlife stepped in.
Defenders did not want to miss the opportunity to bring another predator back to its ancestral home. They began working with leaders of the Blackfeet Nation, the Cochrane Ecological Institute in Canada – which was about to close their captive-breeding program and free the last of their swift foxes – and Craig Knowles, an expert on prairie ecosystems. Craig had been pressuring the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department to restore swift foxes for years, to no avail.
Defenders turned to the Blackfeet and also hired Knowles, who had already tested the waters with tribal wildlife manager Ira Newbreast. They wanted to assess the biological possibility of swift fox reintroduction on the reservation. Knowles found that the Blackfeet Reservation – at more than 1 million acres – contained Montana’s best and second-largest grasslands, with prey flourishing amid a bevy of badger and ground squirrel holes. But most importantly, the Blackfeet wanted the foxes. Their cultural connection to the foxes dates back thousands of years.
Had the government been involved, the reintroduction would have been much more complicated, but the reservation’s sovereign status allowed the tribe to take matters into their own hands. All they needed was the money, and Defenders happily contributed half, while pledging support for reintroductions the following year. And when another 15 swift foxes were released in the summer of 1999, eight wore radio collars so that biologists could monitor their progress.
Aside from making for some very content swift foxes, the program is an indicator of things to come, according to Johnson. “Partnerships like these can be crucial to bringing back rare species,” she said. “I think this program has broken new ground and will serve as a model for others.”
With releases planned again for next summer, Johnson said they hope to create a sustainable population, a magic number they haven’t yet determined. So far, at least four pairs from the first reintroduction have produced kits in the wild.
Defenders’ commitment to endangered species has led to similar strategies to restore black-footed ferrets, grizzly bears, prairie dogs and trumpeter swans to other reservations, wildlife refuges and wildlands. But the group is best known for its work to keep gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park and restore Mexican gray wolves to the Southwest. To learn more about wildlife or about ways you can help, visit Defenders’ website at www.defenders.org
by Heidi Ridgley