In late May of 1805, American explorer Meriwether Lewis said the swift fox was “the most beautiful fox that I ever beheld, the colors appeared to me to be a fine orange-yellow, white and black.”
Despite Lewis’ appreciation of the animal, he fired his gun upon it, as was common in the era, to collect specimens and document wildlife, but he missed as the fox dashed out of sight.
Swift foxes were once common across the Great Plains, as indicated by fur records from the late 19th century. However, the usual factors caused the species to decline: overharvest, loss of habitat and a disruption in the food web, largely a result of pesticides.
Much smaller than a red or gray fox, the swift fox is a native of Nebraska’s shortgrass prairies. An adult swift fox might not weigh much more than 5 pounds, less than the average dog and similar in size to a domestic cat. As the fox’s name implies, it is a swift hunter, reaching speeds of 30 to 40 mph. Swift foxes eat the occasional wild berries and seeds, mice, insects and other small prey. In fact, much of a swift fox’s diet consists of animals considered pests to agriculture. Today, it is harder for them to affect pest populations because there are fewer swift foxes; they are endangered in Nebraska.
Research is ongoing in the state to gain a better understanding of the current distribution of swift foxes. The first step in any successful conservation story is to learn what areas and habitat requirements are most important to the species. However, swift foxes are not easy to locate; they spend most of their time underground in dens and hunt at night.
A project with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Chadron State College and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission involves students to assist in documenting swift foxes. The students install remote cameras that detect motion and heat to capture images of all kinds of wildlife at various sites in the Panhandle. A skunk-scented lure draws curious wild visitors closer to the camera. Students later sort through the photos in hopes of seeing a swift fox. When one is spotted, its location information is entered into a database that is used to map the distribution of swift foxes. Other species, such as coyotes and red foxes, are recorded as well because they may compete with swift foxes for habitat.
Wildlife biologists are using this information to learn where swift foxes live, where they no longer occur and what competitive interactions may be affecting them. Managers can then allocate resources accordingly to benefit this state-endangered species.
Habitat conservation activities may include mechanical removal of invasive trees and shrubs in grasslands, prescribed fire and grazing plans — actions that can also benefit ranchers.
Additional conservation strategies include using caution when driving in areas where swift foxes are known to live and avoiding accidental trapping aimed at other wildlife. Reintroduction programs for swift foxes have shown general success in other parts of their range, including Montana, South Dakota and southern Canada.
If you see a swift fox, you can report its location to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission at 402-471-0641.