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Federal Safeguards Sought For Imperiled Prairie Fox – Coalition Challenges Removal of Swift Fox from Endangered Species Act Cand
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped the swift fox from a list of species awaiting protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2001 and left swift fox conservation to the states. In its decision to deny federal protection to this fox, the Service claimed that the species was more widespread and abundant than believed in 1994, when the fox became a candidate species.
“The swift fox may be missing from at least 60% and possibly up to 90% of its historic range,” said Lauren McCain, Desert and Grasslands Program Coordinator for WildEarth Guardians. “This is a species that deserves and needs protection under the Endangered Species Act, which is a vital safety net for our nation’s wildlife and plants.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged in its 2001 decision notice that the swift fox remained extirpated from at least 60% of its range, especially in the Northern Plains. There are no known populations in North Dakota, where the animal was once common and occupied most of the state. Though the swift fox may have stable populations in Colorado and Kansas, the species remains extirpated from large parts of its historic range in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and northern Wyoming, and may be declining in other states including Nebraska and Texas.
Predator and rodent control programs, increased fur trapping and hunting, predation by domestic dogs, and native prairie conversion to cropland decimated swift fox populations throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. Current threats include automobiles; continued trapping, hunting, and predator and rodent control; and continued habitat loss, which also makes the swift fox more vulnerable to competition with coyotes and red foxes.
In 1994, state and federal wildlife agencies created the Swift Fox Conservation Team to coordinate state efforts to manage the species. The 10 Great Plains states within the swift fox range wanted to keep the fox off the Endangered Species list and pledged to undertake conservation efforts to recover and conserve the fox.
Swift fox reintroduction and recovery efforts have occurred in Canada, Blackfeet and Lower Brule Sioux tribal lands within the U.S., Ted Turner’s Bad River Ranch in South Dakota, and Badlands National Park. But the states themselves have implemented no additional protections for swift fox even in the vicinity of these reintroduction efforts.
“State wildlife agencies simply are not working to recover the swift fox,” stated Jonathan Proctor, Northern Plains Program Director of the Predator Conservation Alliance, another coalition member pushing for federal swift fox protection. “Once the potential for Endangered Species Act protection disappears, the incentive for the states to protect imperiled species also disappears.”
“In the last eight years, the states have been more preoccupied with data gathering than with practicing on-the-ground conservation for a species that is in real trouble,” added McCain of WildEarth Guardians.
No larger than a house cat, the swift fox is North America’s smallest wild canine. Swift foxes eat prairie dogs, ground squirrels, other rodents, birds, reptiles, and insects and live primarily in or near prairie dog colonies, where they have a stable food supply and access to prairie dog burrows for shelter and protection from predators, such as coyotes and large raptors.
The Fish and Wildlife Service rejected an opportunity to conserve a range of imperiled prairie species, including the swift fox, and their habitat when it removed black-tailed prairie dogs from Endangered Species Act candidacy in August. Prairie dogs are keystone species of short- and mid-grass prairie regions, as they play an especially important role in creating habitat and serving as prey for other wildlife. Swift foxes, endangered black-footed ferrets, imperiled ferruginous hawks, and other predators eat prairie dogs as a major food source. A host of species use prairie dog burrows including the fox and the ferret and also the burrowing owl, another species in decline. Listing the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species would have provided blanket protection for the swift fox, black-footed ferret, and birds at risk including the mountain plover, burrowing owl, and ferruginous hawk.
An ecosystem protection approach would be more efficient and effective in addressing the growing crisis of imperiled wildlife on the Great Plains. The Service’s refusal to protect the prairie dog heightens the need to federally list each of the endangered species who depend on prairie dogs. Joining WildEarth Guardians in their renewed effort to obtained federal safeguards for the swift fox are the Center for Biological Diversity and Predator Conservation Alliance. The groups are hoping their notice of intent to sue will spur the Service to protect the swift fox so that the matter does not have to go to court. But, with the Bush Administration’s continued assault on the environment and its refusal to enforce the Endangered Species Act, which remains overwhelmingly popular with the American people, the coalition may have no choice.
The Bush Administration has a track record of refusing to list wildlife and plants on the brink of extinction. While President Clinton listed 65 species a year during his administration, and President George H.W. Bush listed 59 species per year, the George W. Bush Administration has listed only 31 species over 4 years, and all of these were under court order.
WildEarth Guardians is a regional conservation organization whose mission is to preserve and restore native wildlands and wildlife in the American Southwest.