Keep your eye out for swift foxes

Hard to see, this Swift foxes tail has been dyed with green dye marker. Marked foxes are part of a fox population study.

Photo courtesy of Heather Harris, Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks staff encourage people to report any live or road-killed sightings of swift foxes to their local FWP biologist.

To report sightings, people need to be able to tell the difference between swift fox, red fox and coyotes. Swift foxes are about the size of a house cat, smaller than red foxes and only about a fifth the size of coyotes. Red foxes are red, with some variations, and have white-tipped tails. Swift foxes have grayish-red fur and a black-tipped tail. Coyotes can have similar coloring and tail markings, but again are much larger. Juvenile coyotes could resemble swift foxes certain times of the year.

Swift foxes were once abundant on the Great Plains, but in the early 1900s numbers began to decline in response to government poisoning campaigns aimed at wolves, prairie dogs and ground squirrels. Swift foxes lost a prey source in prairie dogs and squirrels, and when wolves declined, they couldn’t outcompete coyotes and red foxes for food.

 In 1969, Montana declared the swift fox extinct locally. However, due in part to transplant programs in Canada, sightings of swift foxes have increased in eastern and central Montana since the 1980’s, leading to stable populations in north-central Montana that support a trapping season.

 Swift foxes are year-round residents, inhabiting the prairies and arid plains. Largely nocturnal, swift foxes can range over several square kilometers a night. They breed from late December to early March, with a single litter of three to six pups born late March to early May. Young are raised in an underground den, emerging in early June and dispersing in late summer or early fall.

Locations of swift foxes can give biologists valuable information, such as better understanding of the distribution of foxes and location of dens. In addition, studies are being conducted with radio-collared foxes, and any help in locating foxes and their dens is crucial to the study. If you happen to spot a swift fox, please contact your local biologist and if possible, get a GPS point or accurate map location of the sighting. 

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