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Fort Belknap Restoring Swift Foxes To Native Range

Chamois Andersen, Defenders of Wildlife senior representative, releases a swift fox on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Sept. 2020.
Hila Shamon
Smithsonian Institute
Chamois Andersen, Defenders of Wildlife Senior Representative, sets a trap for swift fox in Wyoming that will later be released in Fort Belknap in September 2020.

A project on the Fort Belknap Indian Community is restoring one of North America’s smallest, fastest predators to its native habitat.

Go to the prairie near Fort Belknap in north central Montana and you just might hear a sound that hasn’t been heard in this area for over fifty years: The growls of a swift fox.

The size of a housecat, Kristy Bly, a program manager for World Wildlife Fund, jokes that the swift fox weighs five pounds when soaking wet. But she says that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them seriously.

"Even though they’re small and docile, they... they can hold their own," Bly says.

Often this looks like kicking prairie dogs out and taking over their dens. And like their name implies, swift foxes are swift. In fact, Bly says they can run up to forty miles per hour, making them the second fastest animal in North America.

Bly says when a swift fox thrives, it bodes well, ecologically speaking.

"Swift foxes are a very charismatic wildlife species of the prairie and their presence on the landscape really signifies the health of the prairie and the intactness of it," she says.

A swift fox looks through a trap's bars.
Hila Shamon
Smithsonian Institute
A swift fox looks through a trap's bars.

But while the swift fox used to live throughout the Fort Belknap area, its population dwindled as grasslands were turned to farms and other predators were hunted.

"Because of practices by the government, by farmers and ranchers, poisoning coyotes and wolves and whatnot, they disappeared. So we're trying to do our part to bring them back," says Mike Fox, a Gros Ventre tribal member on the Fort Belknap tribal council.

The Fort Belknap Fish and Wildlife Department partnered with the World Wildlife Fund, Defenders of Wildlife and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute to relocate 27 swift foxes from Wyoming.

Fox says they began releasing the foxes on Sept. 14 as part of a five year reintroduction plan to bring at least 40 foxes to the area.

Fox says this is a culturally significant moment for the Gros Ventre people.

"'Cause we had a clan named the Kit Foxes, which is kind of the street name or common name for swift fox. Having them return here helps us to have a tangible connection with the past," he says.

Tim Vosburgh is the tribal wildlife biologist for the Fort Belknap tribes. He says he was surprised by how excited and involved the entire community has been in the reintroduction process.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, it’s an important moment for the Fort Belknap Indian Community.

"We had a ceremony a few weeks ago and it was a real moving experience to listen to the elders and some of the spiritual leaders talk about the reintroduction and what it means to the community and particularly to the younger people," Vosburgh says.

Vosburgh says reintroduction is all about bringing a native species home.

"It's only been a few decades now that the fox hasn't lived in this part of the state. Where it's been here for thousands of years prior to that. So it’s only been gone for kind of a blink in time," he says.

Kaitlyn Nicholas is YPR News' Report for America tribal affairs reporter.

Kaitlyn Nicholas covers tribal news in Montana.