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Swift Fox

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

October 1, 2023

Standing on the open high plains of eastern Wyoming, I scan the horizon in all directions. To the west are some small rolling hills covered in dark green coniferous trees. To the south is an old homestead. Turning more to my left, facing east now, there is nothing but flat open land covered in sage brush and small tufts of grass. My eyes can look for miles in all directions with nothing to obstruct the view.

In the open plains of eastern Wyoming there are no trees to stop the wind so there is always a constant breeze. This vast open area is perfect habitat for a very special canid called the Swift Fox (Vulpes velox). The Swift Fox is the smallest native canid (in the dog family) in North America. They are a tiny fox weighing between 3 to 7 pounds. Males tend to be slightly larger than females. By comparison, they are about the size of a house cat but weigh much less. They are less than half the size of a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes). They are mostly legs, tail and ears. And they are so darn cute.

The common name “Swift” comes from the fact that they are extremely fast runners. Their species name “velox” is Latin for “swift moving”. For a tiny fox they can reach speeds of 25 mph very quickly when running away or chasing a bird.

Originally the Swift Fox ranged all across the plains of western Canada down into Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and as far south as Texas. They are a canid that was tightly associated with the short grass prairies of the American west. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s government sponsored programs to clear the landscape of predators such as wolves and coyotes, nearly drove this critter to extinction. By the 1930’s poisoning, trapping, and shooting along with clearing the land for farming and grazing cattle killed off the Fox in Canada along with much of its former range in the U.S.. Only a few small pockets remained by the 1980’s. They have been reintroduced to many parts of their former range and have been brought back from extinction in Canada. Today, the exact population estimates of the Swift Fox are not known but they seem to be doing much better.

I came to eastern Wyoming to meet up with a friend and see if we could locate some Swift Foxes. About a dozen years ago, I had an opportunity to see and interview the biologist that where working on the reintroduction of the Swift Fox in South Dakota. I took several trips and saw and photographed a few Swift Foxes and I fell in love with this tiny canid. Unfortunately, this population never took hold, and they died out a couple years later. So, this is why I am in Wyoming in search of this cool critter.

We obtained permission from the landowner and drove out to a large cattle ranch. Hundreds of thousands of acres of open land with cattle scattered across the landscape. The vegetation is sparse, so sparse in fact that there is a large network of open soil between the patches of sage and needle and thread grass. It is a very arid part of the country.

Using binoculars, we scanned the area looking for patches or small mounds of dirt where the foxes piled up loose soil when digging a den. The den has three to four openings and can extend 10 to 15 feet horizontally into the ground making a network of tunnels that they use to sleep, give birth to their pups, and stay cool during the heat of the day.

We located a number of dirt mounds but couldn’t see any foxes so we decided to wait and see. It was late in the day with only a couple hours of daylight remaining. The Swift Fox is similar to other foxes in that they are mostly nocturnal so waiting for sunset seems like a good idea. It didn’t take long before we spotted an adult female emerging from the den.

In this open area there is nothing to hide or conceal ourselves so we used the truck to hide our human form. Within a few minutes of the adult coming out of the den, five nearly adult size pups emerged also. Over the next 3 days we spent every morning and every evening capturing images and video along with studying the behavior of these super cool foxes.

Spending time with these foxes reminded me of the importance of a diverse ecosystem that is complete with all its predators, small and large. Only when the circle is complete do we have a healthy environment. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer to travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed at www.instagram.com and www.facebook.com. He can be contacted via his website at www.naturesmart.com.

 

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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