From HARLEM – The Fort Belknap Indian community commemorated three years of its swift fox recovery program with the release of three swift foxes to tribal lands, bringing the total to 103 recovered from these prairie grasslands. Based on post-release monitoring efforts, the native species is reproducing in the wild, which is a critical measure of the success of a self-sustaining population.
“After being absent for more than 50 years, the swift fox has returned to the prairies of Fort Belknap and our people couldn’t be prouder,” said Harold “Jiggs” Main, director of the fish and wildlife department. of Fort Belknap.
For the past four years, the Nakoda (Assiniboine) and Aaniiih (Gros Ventre) Tribes of Fort Belknap have worked in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, Aaniiih Nakoda College, Defenders of Wildlife, American Prairie, World Wildlife Fund and Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo on this five-year reintroduction effort.
This week, three of the 28 foxes trapped in Wyoming will be released in a special ceremony hosted by the Fort Belknap Indian community. The remaining 25 foxes were released later that week.
“This is an important educational opportunity for our students. Not only are they learning new field methods, but they are actively working with our Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Smithsonian to bring the swift fox back to our homelands,” said Daniel Kinsey of Aaniiih Nakoda College.
Surveillance efforts via tracking GPS collars show some foxes traveled long distances, including one documented over 200 miles, while most settled in Fort Belknap and surrounding areas of Phillips and Blaine counties in Montana. At least four females and males (four dens) have been documented mating or “dening” and 20 kits have been born in the wild since the initial reintroduction of 27 foxes in the fall of 2020.
“The swift fox reintroduction is a collaborative program that brings together 15 organizations across multiple states, all contributing to the success of this interdisciplinary work,” said Hila Shamon, research ecologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. “There are several research projects related to this program that will advance our understanding of swift fox ecology and reintroductions in general. We have documented four dens with up to six kits, indicating that there is sufficient habitat for foxes to breed in the reintroduction site.
Trapping efforts have been led by the Smithsonian and Little Dog Wildlife in Wyoming and Colorado, states with healthy populations, over the past three years, and with trapping assistance from Defenders of Wildlife. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission have approved permits for the animals to be trapped and released at Fort Belknap as part of ongoing reintroduction efforts. Defenders of Wildlife and Wilder Institute/Calgary purchased the monitoring collars the foxes receive before their release at Fort Belknap. Additional support for the program was provided by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“It was an honor for the Defenders to play a part in Aaniiih and Nakoda’s effort to bring the swift fox back to their lands, and also as a long-term partner in recovering the buffaloes and black-footed ferrets. endangered on their land,” said Chamois Andersen, senior Rockies and Plains representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “Fort Belknap is truly a model of native plains wildlife conservation.”
The swift fox is the latest extinct species to return to Fort Belknap, joining other iconic prairie species successfully reintroduced to native lands under the direction of the Fort Belknap Fish and Wildlife Department. Historically, swift foxes lived across much of the Great Plains of North America.
“Fort Belknap’s vast grasslands support a variety of avian and terrestrial wildlife while providing economic benefits to tribes through livestock grazing, recreation, and other land uses. With the support of many partners, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and local government, the Aaniiih and Nakoda peoples have been bringing native wildlife back to these native grasslands for over three decades,” said Tim Vosburgh, wildlife biologist at Fort Belknap Fish. and Wildlife Department.
In addition to tracking animals with GPS collars, scientists take blood and feces samples before they are released. This allows the team to use DNA samples to confirm survival and production of offspring after release – the hallmark of a self-sustaining population. Data from camera traps and continuous collection of feces at strategically placed scent posts also helped confirm the presence of swift foxes. Students from Aaniiih Nakoda College, Clemson University, and George Mason University are assisting Fort Belknap and Smithsonian with data collection and ongoing fieldwork.
“Since its inception, American Prairie has been inspired by the land stewardship and regeneration efforts of the Fort Belknap community. We are proud to stand with our neighbors and support the repatriation of swift foxes to their home in the Great Plains of Montana,” said Beth Saboe, senior public relations manager for American Prairie.
Swift fox numbers declined sharply in the late 1800s, primarily due to poisonings intended for coyotes and wolves and loss of grassland habitat. During this same period, they were also eliminated from the northern part of their range. Swift foxes made a comeback after successful reintroduction efforts began in 1983 in Canada and in the Blackfeet and Fort Peck Indian communities in Montana. However, these reintroduced populations have not yet reconnected with populations in the southern part of their historic range. The establishment of a swift fox population on Fort Belknap lands will expand the occupied range of the species in the north and help close the distribution gap between existing populations to the north and south.
Roshan Patel, National Zoo and Smithsonian Institute for Conservation Biology