Swift Fox

What do you think the value of this rare 5 lb, 12″ high, legally trapped little creature in Montana is?

FWP had said there was no reported market value for the swift fox. Trappers like the notoriety of trapping and killing these little foxes, smaller than a domestic size cat. In Montana the swift fox is listed as a species of concern and rightfully so.

But are the swift fox on their way to being wiped out again in Montana?

Will that someday be the next “lucky” trapper’s claim to fame? Again?

Swift fox are shy, fast, nocturnal, members of the vixens, i.e. fox family, that live on the grasslands. Scientists refer to them as indicators of healthy prairies. The swift fox are half the size of the typically known red fox, their coats are less red and their tail is tipped with black instead of white. They spend most of their time in burrows on the prairies. Their major predator are coyotes who are believed to kill them as competitors for food.

From the latest accounts, swift fox have been reduced to less than 40% of their historic range across the prairies which ran from central Alberta, Canada, south to central Texas, and from western Iowa to Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Habitat loss, severe winters, drought and climate change, remain major threats for this species who lives an average of only 3-4 yrs, at best, in the wild.

Native Americans revered the once-plentiful swift fox for its slyness and speed. The Blackfeet Tribe in Montana  forbade the killing of swift foxes after a spiritual swift fox society was formed. The swift fox really pose no threat to people, livestock or hunter’s quarry. Swift fox are benefical to adjacent cropslands as they feed primarily on rodents and insects. According to researchers, swift fox are very curious and very easy to trap.

As a result of massive killing campaigns utilizing traps and poisons against wild canines and prairie dogs, and the plowing up of grasslands for agriculture and livestock, the swift fox was finally considered extinct in Montana by 1969. It hadn’t been seen in decades. 11 years later, Canada reached the same determination.

Roughly, 1,000 swift fox were later reintroduced into Alberta and Saskatchewan near the Montana border between 1983-1997. Almost 200 swift fox were released on to two Native American Reservations in Montana, i.e. 123 on to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, 1998-2002 and 60 on to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, 2006-2010.

The swift fox was listed as a candidate under the ESA in 1995. By 2000-2001, swift fox had returned to our state and were estimated at 221 in north-central Montana according to the international census. As a result, the ESA removed them from the candidate list in 2001. The ruling stated, “that the continuity of populations indicated an apparent viability and vitality that demonstrated that the magnitude and immediacy of threats to the species was sufficiently reduced to a level that precluded the necessity of listing.” The swift fox in Montana continued to grow and reportedly expand. By 2005-2006 the census estimated them at 523 in our state. A number never, thus far, to be seen again.

An intent to sue on behalf of the swift fox was denied by the USFWS in 2005 on the basis, indicators were the swift fox was stabilized or increasing and on historic ranges, reintroductions were underway,  and  “declining trends have not been evident in recent decades.”  And that, “there is adequate information available to conclude the swift fox is more abundant and is distributed more widely and is more flexible in its habitat requirements than previously thought.”

At the request of Montana trappers, Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) opened a swift fox trapping season in 2010, with a quota of 20 and a maximum of 3 swift fox per trapper.  Three years later, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks increased the quota for the 2013 furbearer season to 30. Commonly, the trapping seasons in Montana correlate to the pregnancy, birthing and/or period of dependent young.  Swift fox breed in late December to early January. After ~50 days of gestation, a single annual litter of 2-6 are typically born in late February to early March. Both parents care for the young. The findings indicate swift fox disperse to new areas in the fall and again just before the breeding season. Montana’s trapping season for swift fox runs Nov 1- March 1, therefore, during the periods of disperal, breeding, pregnancy, birthing and newborn young. It closes earlier if the trapping quota is reached. Those trapped swift fox outside the season dates and/or the trapping boundaries do not count against the quota for that year or the next.

For the 2016 Montana furbearer trapping season, FWP dropped the swift fox trapping quota of 30 to 10, emphasizing the quota of 10 was more reflective of the average number of swift fox reported trapped annually. TFMPL asked why even 10 and pushed for 0 but to no avail.

What became apparent in 2018, the swift fox in Montana were in trouble.  From the last census, 2014-2015, the preliminary estimate were only 175 swift fox remained in Montana….a drop of 67%.

In Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the swift fox were reintroduced, they remain protected. No trapping! In further contrast to Montana, their populations had grown and swift fox moved from a listing of endangered status to threatened.

A severe weather in Montana 2010-2011 was assigned much of the blame for our plummeting population. However, southern Alberta and Saskatchewan had a variety of severe winter storms over the same period of years. Both regions have had severe winters since 2011, as well.

Meanwhile, for the 2018/2019 furbearer proposals, Montana FWP asked the public to support a Swift Fox Conservation Strategy Plan and for the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to approve it.  Listed as primary goals are to monitor swift fox distribution and status, and increase distribution of swift fox into suitable, connected habitats and avoid potential listing under the endangered species act.  Nowhere was there mention of trapping’s potential significant negative impacts on the population, on genetics, on recolonization to historic ranges, or indicators a trapping moratorium was justified and warranted.

Trap Free Montana Public Lands’ (TFMPL) alarm cries were dismissed. FWP replied that the swift fox had declined significantly in Montana but the final 2014-2015 from the last census, i.e. 2014-2015, showed a 33% decline to 347 swift fox remaining in Montana. We were told swift fox were appearing elsewhere, too, in the state. Furthermore, that swift fox numbers were plugged into a Population Viability Analysis (PVA) “to inform harvest regulations.” Based on the findings, the conclusion was the probability of extinction was zero over the next 100 years.

However, wildlife are far more than numbers plugged into a model. They do not operate in a vacuum. For example, the swift fox females dominate the social structure. Mates pair up for life. In the loss of a mate, the males will disperse whereas the females will not. 66% of the reported trappings in 8 recent seasons in Montana were males. The average age of trapped individuals was 1.6 years. However in the more recent years,  over 80% trapped are juvenilles. These are the ones who primarily disperse. Aside from mortality due to trapping, shooting, poisons, and from vehicles, the little swift fox are found to be negatively impacted further by agriculture, topography, predation, drought, severe winters, loss of prey, and climate change. An example is the Milk river serves as an obstacle to disperal. The research from 2018 onwards is clear that the future is not looking any where as promising as FWP would have lead one to believe, or as we all would have hoped.

For the 2020 swift fox trapping proposals, FWP wants to (1) extend the eastern trapping boundary to abut the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and north to the Canadian border. FWP writes that the Fort Peck Reservation has no concern. What is absent in the proposal are the findings the swift fox on the reservation appear basically gone.

A recent report also had this to say, “The recent decrease in swift fox abundance (Moehrenschlager & Moehrenschlager, 2018), coupled with our finding that swift fox dispersal is frequent across the international border, implies that demographic recovery in one country is going to be particularly sensitive to management actions in the other country. This highlights the need for coordinated management on a small scale. With swift foxes having the highest level of protection in Canada, and no federal protection in the USA.”

Additionally, FWP has proposed for 2020 changes, (2) closing the swift fox trapping on January 15th instead of March 1st. Yet, swift fox are already into their breeding season prior to that date. The quota of 10 often results in the season closing prior to January 15th. This appears somewhat of a smokescreen and is disingenious to the necessary changes indicated for the swift fox recovery goals and objectives.

We often ask where’s the science?

Unfortunately, from the *best available science for the swift fox in Montana:

  • The north-central swift fox population appears stable but population expansion seems to have stalled.
  • Adult survivorship is lower.
  • They do not appear reproducing to the extent necessary for recolonization.
  • The swift fox in the southeastern portion of Montana are not reproducing and are not staying.
  • There is still a ~350 km gap in distribution to fox populations in south‐eastern Montana (MTFWP, 2019).
  • The southeastern Montana swift foxes are separated from Wyoming groups by about 180 miles, more than three times the length of a long-distance dispersal by swift foxes.
  • Juvenilles disperse the shorter of the average distances from within the Montana reintroduced populations.
  • Connectedness between multiple populations is important to rescue rare populations from becoming extinct as well as for the persistent viability of the overall population.
  • Swift fox in Montana have larger home ranges and smaller litter sizes than other populations in the U.S.
  • Swift fox face many obstacles to their recovery in Montana.
  • A fragmented landscape places obstacles in the path of swift fox expansion in Montana.
  • An increase in agriculture and the disappearance of the native prairies are threats to the swift fox population.
  • A review suggests that drought in combination with other limiting factors could threaten swift fox populations.
  • Scientists claim we are not in the throws of climate change; that we are in a climate crisis.
  • Experts say we are in the 6th mass extinction. This time due to humans.

The best available science reinforces the need to STOP Trapping Swift Fox!

Trapping is one known cause of mortality to swift fox that can easily and quickly cease. Trapped individuals are not surplus, mortality replacements. The evidence shows the trapped individuals are generally the healthiest. They quite likely are the very ones especially needed. The smaller and more isolated the population the more significant each member is to the genetics, vitality and sustainability of the species. Swift fox males are known to abandon the dependent litter after their mate is killed. Thus, the loss of one can be far greater! At least 100 swift fox have been trapped and killed during Montana’s swift fox trapping season from 2010 – 2019. FWP shows another 7 recorded dead from incidental trapping. Swift fox are also “mistakenly” shot. Why does the whims of less than a handful of trappers in Montana supercede the dire needs of the swift fox and the will of Montanans? Recent public comment to the Wildlife Commission were 40:1 urging the ending of a swift fox trapping season.

Lastly, in regards to the FWP excuse that they are getting trapped anyways, the research shows modifications to leghold traps were 100% effective at avoiding captures of swift fox and 94% effective at trapping coyotes. There are no excuses!


Back to our question. Current market price for Swift Fox pelts? $7.  Cost to reintroduce? $950 to $5,300 per U.S. swift fox. Canada’s cost was around $5,000,000!

Cost of extinction???

* References are available upon request.

Trap Free Montana All Rights Reserved. 2017 – 2020

Saving Swift Fox- with the ATB Financial Swift Fox Conservation Program

Resources and References (click to expand)