In the midst of the pandemic, as the story goes, a team set out to bring swift foxes back to a land they had disappeared from more than 50 years ago. Swift fox populations declined dramatically from the late 1880s through the 1960s. Estimates show that they now occupy 44% of their former range in the U.S. and just 3% in Canada.
Our team at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is collaborating with Fort Belknap Indian Community on a five-year swift fox reintroduction project. Together, and with support from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Defenders of Wildlife, American Prairie Reserve, and World Wildlife Fund, we are bringing swift foxes back to Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana.
Adult swift foxes weigh about 5 pounds, making them the smallest members of mainland North America’s canid family, which includes wolves, foxes and coyotes. They live on prairies with short, native grasses but can also be found in areas dominated by sagebrush or on cultivated lands. Today, they are divided into two populations, northern and southern, separated by a gap of about 200 miles.
Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, located in the homeland of the A’aniiih and Nakota tribes, is situated within that gap. Connecting the northern and southern populations will allow swift foxes to move throughout the landscape, exchange genes through breeding and develop healthier, more resilient populations.
For two years, we carefully planned the reintroduction, but nothing prepared me to try to conduct this process during a COVID-19 pandemic. I had to add a set of safety restrictions on top of the trapping procedures to keep everyone safe and healthy. On Aug. 27, 2020, our team headed to Wyoming to begin trapping swift foxes and translocating them to the reservation.
We scouted a few sites before choosing to trap at Shirley Basin in Carbon County, Wyoming. Shirley Basin is a high-elevation grassland that is undeveloped, lightly grazed by cattle and extremely beautiful. The habitat is different from our field sites in Montana. There are many ground-dwelling critters, like white-tailed prairie dogs, and hundreds of pronghorns running around (Did you know that there are more pronghorns than people in Wyoming?).