This week, the Fort Belknap Indian Community marked three years of its swift fox recovery program with the release of three swift foxes on Tribal lands, bringing the total to 103 recovered back to these prairie grasslands. Based on post-release monitoring efforts, the native species is reproducing in the wild, which is a critical measure of success for a self-sustaining population.
Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute said in a news release that over the last four years, the Nakoda (Assiniboine) and Aaniiih (Gros Ventre) Tribes of Fort Belknap have worked with the institute, Aaniiih Nakoda College, Defenders of Wildlife, American Prairie, World Wildlife Fund, and Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo on the reintroduction effort.
“After being absent for more than 50 years, the swift fox has returned to the grasslands of Fort Belknap and our people could not be prouder,” said Harold Main, director of the Fort Belknap Fish & Wildlife Department.
The agency said:
Swift fox numbers declined precipitously in the late 1800s, mainly due to poisoning intended for coyotes and wolves and the loss of grassland habitat. During this same time, they were also eliminated from the northern portion of their range. Swift foxes made a comeback after successful reintroduction efforts began in 1983 in Canada and on the Blackfeet and Fort Peck Indian communities in Montana. However, these reintroduced populations have yet to reconnect with populations in the southern portion of their historic range. Establishing a population of swift foxes on Fort Belknap’s lands will expand the species’ occupied range in the north and help bridge the distribution gap between existing populations to the north and south.
Three of 28 foxes trapped in Wyoming were released during a ceremony this week hosted by the Fort Belknap Indian Community. The remaining 25 foxes will be released later this week.
“This is an important educational opportunity for our students. They not only learn new field methods, but they are actively working with our Fish and Wildlife Department and the Smithsonian to return the swift fox to our homelands,” said Daniel Kinsey of Aaniiih Nakoda College.
“The vast grasslands on Fort Belknap provide a home to a variety of avian and terrestrial wildlife while providing economic benefits to the Tribes through livestock grazing, recreation and other land uses. With support from numerous partners, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the local government, the Aaniiih and Nakoda people have been bringing Indigenous wildlife back to these native grasslands for over three decades,” said Tim Vosburgh, a wildlife biologist with the Fort Belknap Fish & Wildlife Department.
Monitoring efforts via GPS collar tracking show some foxes traveled long distances, including one documented more than 200 miles away, while most have settled on Fort Belknap and the surrounding areas in Phillips and Blaine counties. At least four females and males (four dens) have been documented pairing up or “denning,” and 20 kits have been born in the wild since the original reintroduction of 27 foxes in fall 2020.
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