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Swift Fox

A red Swift Fox stands in a field
USFWS Mountain Prairie
licensed under CC BY 2.0
Swift Fox

On January 6, 1805, the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition trapped a fox that was apparently hanging around Fort Mandan. Russell Reid, in his book Lewis and Clark in North Dakota (1988) speculated it could have been a swift fox. Most North Dakotans are familiar with the red fox. But the swift fox, also known as kit fox or prairie fox? Not so much, if at all.

The swift fox (Vulpes velox) resembles a red fox but is much smaller. It is often described as being the size of a house cat. A red fox averages around 10-12 pounds. The swift fox is about half that size, averaging around 5 pounds. The coloration is also a little different than a red fox. A good field mark is the tip of the tail. Unlike the red fox which has a white tipped tail, the swift fox has a black tipped tail.

The swift fox is native to the mixed grass and short grass prairies of the northern Great Plains. Their historical range would have included all of North Dakota. Art Bailey in his Biological Survey of North Dakota noted that in 1800 the swift fox was one of the common furbearers in the Red River Valley with several pelts taken from the Pembina Hills. He also noted that 400-600 pelts were taken in at a fur trading station in Walhalla in one season.

But the swift fox was reportedly easily trapped, poisoned, or even killed by farm dogs. So, their populations plummeted with European settlement. By the 1920’s they were could only be found in the western portion of the state where they were considered scarce. They were subsequently considered to be extirpated from the state. I have not heard of any known populations in the state in recent years. However, scattered reports of sightings of swift fox have been increasing in recent years. So perhaps the species is making a comeback.

Coyotes are quite common across North Dakota. And there is an outside chance of seeing a gray fox. But if you see what looks like a red fox that is disconcertingly small and about the size of a house cat, look for that black tipped tail, particularly during the early summer months. That will help you identify a swift fox as opposed to a red fox pup. And maybe, just maybe, the swift fox will become a more familiar sight in our state in the future.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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