Tribe cuts through red tape to help fox to a swift recovery

Blackfeet Indians' efforts to rescue species, without Endangered

Seated in a pickup truck alone on a vast table of Western savannah, Ira Newbreast squints into the sun, looking for two brown specks accelerating across a treeless grassland.

Pressing binoculars to his face, he finds them - a pair of swift foxes hunting for ground squirrels in an isolated corner of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Mr. Newbreast smiles. The tribal wildlife manager knows his experiment to rescue one of the prairie's rarest species - and one of his tribe's most revered animals - is working.

Now he hopes it will serve as a lesson for other land managers - and possibly even members of Congress - contemplating conservation programs for a number of creatures. As lawmakers in far-off Washington kvetch about how much they should do to prevent species from becoming extinct, the Blackfeet have quietly produced a possible model for how to avoid future conflict.

The idea: If you voluntarily assist a species today, you can prevent the need for federal intervention tomorrow.

"I remain convinced that this is a great way to go about species conservation," says Minette Johnson, a program associate for Defenders of Wildlife, a national leader in pushing similar reintroductions. "It proves that some animals can be recovered without a lot of red tape or conflict with traditional land users."

The Blackfeet's fox reintroduction is among a growing movement of wildlife restoration projects that have roots with nongovernmental organizations and the private sector. The initiatives have moved forward largely out of frustration with the cost, amount of wasted time, and divisiveness that have plagued species-recovery programs on federal lands for wolves, grizzly bears, and California condors.

Swift foxes once were common to the prairie - in 1805, Lewis and Clark chronicled an encounter with the canids in their journals. Yet during the next 150 years, fox populations decreased dramatically because of overtrapping and modifications of their habitat caused by agriculture. Thirty years ago, it was declared extinct on the Blackfeet reservation and across Montana.

Today, a few isolated subpopulations of swift fox exist in states such as Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming. Yet many citizens have pushed to have the fox declared a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

But here, near the confluence of the Two Medicine and Marias Rivers, the focus has shifted from intervention to reintroduction. Since the mid-1990s, conservationists have suggested that the reservation might be an ideal place to bring back the swift fox. But it wasn't until August, when Newbreast encouraged his tribe to move go ahead with restoring the foxes, that things began moving forward.

With the help of conservation groups, 30 swift foxes were returned to the reservation. This summer, another shipment of foxes - bred in captivity - is planned, and a third will follow in 2000.

So far, so good. Mortality for introduced species often runs high in the first year, Ms. Johnson says, but only two foxes perished over the winter.

"It is the best release site we've ever had available to us," says Clio Smeeton of the Cochrane Ecological Institute, which spearheaded swift-fox recovery in Canada. "One reason is the abundance of prey and the fact that there is a huge amount of escape terrain such as badger holes to offer protection from other predators."

Another is the fact that the swift fox poses no threat to farmers - it doesn't eat cattle or sheep. But perhaps the most important ingredient, Ms. Smeeton adds, is the attitude of the Blackfeet people - they want these foxes back.

Swift foxes dwell in the Blackfeet's oldest oral traditions and remain icons of an ancient warrior society. Actually, no fewer than a half dozen plains tribes refer to the fox in their storytelling.

Indeed, in a place where the views of nature are rich, but poverty is rampant, the fox is emerging as a symbol of hope. "The swift fox is part of our heritage," says Newbreast. "I don't want to sound overdramatic, but we share a common destiny. [Blackfeet tribal members] have adopted these animals as their own. When they see swift fox, they feel special inside, like they've been handpicked to help bring a species back."

For Robert Ferris of Defenders of Wildlife, the Blackfeet project as a vital middle ground. "We have become so accustomed to polarization that when you just go out and make a reintroduction happen, it seems remarkable," he says. "In fact, it is remarkable."

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