Swift fox may lose the race

  • UNPROTECTED: Swift fox on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near Browning, Montana

    Jeff Henry

The last days of the Clinton administration haven't all been rosy for environmentalists. In early January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped the swift fox as a candidate for endangered species listing.

Environmentalists petitioned the federal government eight years ago to protect the housecat-sized canine under the Endangered Species Act. But the Swift Fox Conservation Team, composed of state and federal representatives, concluded that the fox is more abundant than previously thought, occurring in about 40 percent of its historic habitat, which ranges from central Texas north into Canada. The team also recommended removal from the candidate list because the fox, normally found on shortgrass prairies, "has been able to adapt to a mixed prairie-agricultural landscape."

But environmental groups challenge the finding. "Just because (the swift fox) is in a particular habitat doesn't mean it's doing well," says Defenders of Wildlife's Minette Johnson. "It might be there solely because it's the only place left."

Scientists believe that the animals have suffered from the massive decline in prairie dog populations, as well as the continued presence of cyanide guns and leg traps set out for coyotes. Although swift foxes have recently been reintroduced in Canada and on Montana's Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Jonathan Proctor of the Predator Conservation Alliance worries that in the wake of the new decision, "the swift fox will fall off the radar screen of federal and state agencies.

"(Fish and Wildlife Service officials) have had a lot of pressure from the states to give them a victory on a species," Proctor says, "and the swift fox is that species."

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