Rare Swift Fox Flourishes at Blackfeet Rseservation

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Reintroduction efforts are successful

(02/18/1999) - Defenders of Wildlife announced today that a partnership to reintroduce the imperiled swift fox to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana has proved successful. The 30 swift foxes reintroduced last summer have suffered few losses and are quickly becoming established. Weekly monitoring indicates extensive fox activity in the areas in which they were released.

The foxes were returned to the region in hopes of restoring a self-sustaining population, under a partnership between Defenders of Wildlife, a nationalconservation organization; the Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI), the world's only captive breeding facility for swift fox; and the Blackfeet Nation.

"It is heartwarming to know that these small creatures have once again returned to the prairies where they belong," said Rodger Schlickeisen, President of Defenders. "The recovery of rare species nationwide will depend on innovative partnerships such as this." CEI provided the 30 juvenile foxes. The Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department provided the site and assisted with the release, while Defenders of Wildlife pulled the project together and contributed funding through a grant from the Bradley Fund of the Sand County Foundation for the Environment.

"We are very grateful for the Bradley Fund's assistance and praise the Bradley family for their support of projects that keep alive the conservation legacy of Nina Leopold Bradley's father, Aldo Leopold," said Bob Ferris, Defenders' Director of Species Conservation. "Aldo spent many years championing predator restoration and would have loved the idea of this project."

The swift fox was once common on the Blackfeet Reservation and throughout Montana. When Lewis and Clark passed through the area in 1806, they reported swift foxes at the confluence of the Two Medicine and Marias Rivers. But the swift fox vanished there 50 years ago. The last historical record of a swift fox in Montana occurred in 1918 and was declared extinct in the state in 1969.

The fox's disappearance was a result of numerous factors, including incidental poisoning by bait set out for wolves and coyotes, trapping, habitat loss to agriculture, and loss of food sources like prairie dogs and ground squirrels as part of federal eradication campaigns.

Named for its speediness, the swift fox is one of North America's smallest canids, weighing an average of 5 pounds and measuring 12 inches in height and 31 inches in length. It is a buffy-gray color along its back, with yellowish tan across the sides and legs. It has a broader skull, shorter ears, shorter tail, and slightly larger body than its cousin the kit fox. The swift fox is an opportunistic predator feeding on ground squirrels and other small mammals, grasshoppers and berries.

In 1992 a petition was submitted to protect the swift fox under the Endangered Species Act. In 1995 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that listing was "warranted but precluded." A Swift Fox Conservation Team, composed of state and federal officials, was established. In 1997 the team released a "Conservation Assessment and Conservation Strategy for Swift Fox in the United States," listing a number of prescriptions for recovery. Among the remedies proposed was "expanding the distribution of swift fox where ecologically and politically feasible." Recently a few swift fox returned naturally to Montana from populations in Grassland National Park in Saskatchewan, Canada, but their future is far from secure.

"Our hope is to reintroduce foxes for a three-year period until they become well established on the Blackfeet Reservation," says Minette Johnson, Program Associate for Defenders. "The Blackfeet Reservation is the best release site we've ever had available," adds Clio Smeeton, President of CEI. To date only two confirmed mortalities have occurred, both hit by automobiles on Highway 89. Examination of the body of the fox killed most recently confirmed that it was well fed and would have done well through the winter.

The foxes have received a warm reception from the community on the Blackfeet Reservation. In the words of Ira Newbreast, Director of the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department, "Once tribal members gain an understanding of the historical status of the swift fox, they're sold on the project."

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Contact(s):

Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270