Swift foxes are reddish-brown, a bit smaller than a house cat, with big ears and a long tail. They do their best to sound intimidating when they're live-trapped, but they tend to be quite docile. They were historically found across the Great Plains region from Alberta, Canada down through the central part of the United States, but today, they're only in about 40 percent of that area.
"Currently, in Montana, we have a small population very close to the border between Montana and Canada," said Hila Shamon, a research ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. "And then there's a pretty big gap before we get down here to Wyoming where swift fox have already recovered. So there's a gap of about 300 miles between that northern population and the southern population, which is from Wyoming all the way down to New Mexico."
Shamon said both natural barriers and human development contribute to the species' range reduction, but the main barrier that keeps them from spreading through Montana is the Milk River because the northern population can't cross it. But the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana have partnered with nearly 30 different organizations, including the Smithsonian, to help bridge that gap. They're relocating nearly 200 swift foxes from Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas to their historic range on the reservation.
"This fox used to be a part of this ecosystem. It's a grassland specialist. It's been almost 50 years. It's a native species," said Shamon, "It's important to that community as well, the community that's living on Fort Belknap. It's a missing link in this ecosystem."
Several of the locations where the foxes will be released are home to other reintroduced species.
"This is a major effort on behalf of the tribe, as has been all animals they've restored to their land, including buffalo," said Chamois Andersen, Senior Representative with Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group and parter on the project. "They have endangered black-footed ferrets. And very healthy prairie dogs that provide for the ferrets as well as other animals. And Belknap is just a model in native plains wildlife. They've really done an amazing job."
According to Tribal Council member Mike Fox, reintroducing species is important to the tribes.
"Ever since a tribal fish and game department was created, we've always looked at restoring things back to their natural habitat as much as we can in a modern world. And so little steps like this are something that we definitely want to continue," he said.
According to Fox, this will be their last big reintroduction to this area.
"It kind of rounds it out. The area that we're gonna be focusing on reintroducing them into is Snake Butte Buffalo Pasture, and that's 23,000 acres," Fox said. "That Snake Butte area - it'll be one of the most intact short grass prairie ecosystems in the entire country now."
This year, 40 to 50 foxes are being live trapped in Albany and Carbon counties in Wyoming. The efforts started earlier this month. Shamon said they'll be given a health check and a GPS collar and then released in Montana.
"We put them on top of an empty prairie dog burrow that we extend in the interim so they can go in," she said. "And we're going to leave them there for a period of between three or five days. Usually they would dig their way out in about three days. Sometimes they decide to stay in the pen. So on day five, we'll just take it down and release them."
A soft release helps reduce the animal's stress and get it acquainted with the landscape before it's set loose on its own. Over the next five years, they plan to repeat this process trapping twice in Colorado, once in Kansas, and again in Wyoming. The five-year timeframe allows them to release multiple age groups on the site. After those five years, the foxes will continue to be monitored to make sure the population is healthy and growing.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at email@example.com.