Native species like swift foxes and black-footed ferrets disappeared from America’s Fort Belknap reservation generations ago, wiped out by campaigns of poisoning, disease, and agricultural plowing that turned open prairie into farmland and cattle pasture. .
Now, with guidance from Native American elders and outside wildlife groups, tribal college students and interns are helping reintroduce the small predators to the northern Montana reservation, which stretches across more than 2,600 square kilometers (1,000 sq mi) near the US-Canada border.
Sakura Main, a 24-year-old Aaniiih woman who will enter Fort Belknap’s Aaniiih Nakoda University in January, is helping to locate and trap critically endangered ferrets to vaccinate them against a deadly plague.
Their work is part of a program overseen by the tribal department of fish and game, in partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature.
The nocturnal animals live among the crowded burrows of prairie dog colonies, where ferrets stalk the rodents, wrapping themselves around their prey to strangle and kill it.
On a recent clear night, with the sacred Nakoda site called Snake Butte looming on the horizon, Main shined a flashlight on a long, thin wire snare over a prairie dog burrow. Inside it was the second ferret he would catch that night with fellow wildlife worker CJ Werk, daughter of the former tribal chair.
“We have one there!” Main exclaimed quietly.
“Wow, really another one?” replied Werk, who was in a friendly competition with another worker, his cousin, to catch the most ferrets. “I’m going to rub it.”
Rushing back to the “hospital trailer,” the animal was sedated and vaccinated against jungle plague carried by its favorite prey. He had a microchip inserted under his skin for future monitoring, before being returned to the prairie dog colony to a soft cheer from Main and Werk.
As extinctions of animals and plants accelerate around the world, Native American tribes with limited funds are trying to reestablish endangered species and restore their habitats, steps that go hand in hand with growing calls to “rebuild” places by the reactivation of degraded natural systems.
But the direct relationship Native Americans perceive between people and wildlife sets their approach apart from Western conservationists, who often emphasize “management” of habitat and wildlife over which humans have dominion, said Julie Thorstenson, executive director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society.
“Western science sees humans as sort of external stewards of the land and the ecosystem,” he said. “Indigenous peoples see themselves as part of it.”
The Nakoda and Aaniiih people who live on Fort Belknap have fought to restore their land to a wilder state. Diseases periodically wipe out ferret populations, and half of the foxes released so far may have died or fled.
But the tribesmen say they are committed to rebuilding native species with deep cultural significance to restore balance between humans and the natural world. Tribal elders speak wistfully of the long-defunct Swift Fox Society, which prized reserved animals and used their fur and tails to adorn braids and costumes. They call foxes and ferrets their “kin.”
“It’s like getting your family back,” said Mike Fox, former director of the Fort Belknap wildlife program. “We have a pretty good place in the northern plains to bring these animals back and complete the circle of animals that were originally here.”
Before European colonization, up to a million ferrets occupied about 156,000 square miles (400,000 square kilometers) from Canada to Mexico, wherever prairie dogs were found.
In the 1960s, conversion of grasslands to crops, pests, and poisoning campaigns reduced the prairie dog’s range to 2,200 square miles (5,700 square kilometers). Ferrets were presumed to be extinct, then rediscovered in 1981 on a ranch in Meeteetse, Wyoming.
They are one of the most endangered mammals in North America, with only about 300 in the wild, including fewer than 40 at Fort Belknap. Populations are supported with a captive breeding program to counter periodic annihilations by the pest.
Prairie dogs are still considered a nuisance among ranchers, even at Fort Belknap, because they eat grass. Prairie dog shooting tournaments were once held annually to raise money for the tribal department of fish and game, Fox said. The tournaments are gone at Fort Belknap, and prairie dogs, rodent-sized of a common squirrel on the plains of the US, are now recognized as vital to ferrets.
Parts of Fort Belknap are also being repopulated with bison, a species that sustained Native Americans for centuries before white settlers killed them off. Dozens of tribes across the US are restoring bison, similar to efforts in the Pacific Northwest to maintain populations of wild salmon, another keystone species that has provided tribes with food.
The work to restore black-footed ferrets and swift foxes is different. Unlike bison and salmon, foxes and ferrets are not food sources. They live in the shadows, hunt mainly at night, and are rarely seen.
Ferrets have been reintroduced to seven reservations in the Northern Plains and two tribal sites in the Southwest, while swift foxes have been returned to four reservations, said Shaun Grassel, a former biologist with the Lower Brule Sioux tribe in South Dakota.
Less than 100 yards from a small pen of three swift foxes about to be released at Fort Belknap, tribal elders Buster Moore and John Allen sat among cactus and brush and passed a pipe around a circle of men. , while the women sat nearby. , watching and listening.
After the ceremony, Moore, whose Nakoda name is Buffalo Bull Horn, rubbed his hands on the hard earth and explained that they prayed for the foxes, the tribes, and the earth itself.
“He supports himself; he helps Mother Earth. Everything is in balance,” Moore said of the restoration work taking place on that day. “Prairie dogs, wolves, swift foxes, red foxes, black-footed ferrets.”
Once abundant on the plains, swift foxes now occupy about 40 percent of their original habitat. Since 2020, the tribes and the university have worked with scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo to capture about 100 foxes from healthy populations in Wyoming and Montana and relocate them to Fort Belknap.
As Moore spoke, the reserve’s fish and wildlife biologist Tim Vosburgh and two assistants cautiously approached some foxes in a pen. They used wire cutters to cut the chain link open.
After the biologist and assistants walked away, a fox poked its head out of a prairie dog’s burrow inside the pen. He was soon shot through the opening, followed within minutes by two others.
They disappeared across the rolling landscape and into the glaring sun behind the Bearpaw Mountains to the west.
“What they need is a little luck,” said the older Allen. “They need to survive the winter, and then they won’t have to worry about it, you know, because they have all the skills. So we call on our relatives to protect them.”
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