Rare Swift Foxes Are Reintroduced on Blackfeet Indian Reservation

(08/29/1999) - Defenders of Wildlife today announced that 15 imperiled swift foxes have been reintroduced on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana. The foxes are being returned to the region through a partnership between Defenders of Wildlife, the Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI), and the Blackfeet Nation in hopes of restoring a self-sustaining population. This is the second swift fox release in this area since summer 1998, when 30 swift foxes were brought from Canada.

"It is very encouraging to know that these small creatures will once again be a part of Montana's diverse natural heritage, as they roam 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, the world's only swift fox captive-breeding facility, is providing the foxes; the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department is providing the site and assisting with the release; and Defenders of Wildlife pulled the project together and contributes funding through a grant from the Bradley Fund for the Environment of the Sand County Foundation.

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 last confirmed trapping of a swift fox in Montana occurred in 1953. The species 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 buffy-gray along its back, with yellowish tan across its 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, and 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. "Returning the swift fox is a first step toward restoring our prairies."

"The Blackfeet Reservation is the best release site we've ever had available," adds Clio Smeeton, president of CEI. Of the foxes released last summer, only two mortalities have been confirmed, both victims of 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 swift 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, "The people have adopted these animals as their own. When they see a swift fox, they feel special inside, like they've been hand-picked to help bring a species back."

The swift fox b-roll is available from Jesal Mehta at 202-682-9400, x284.



Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270