« Return to this article

Know the West

Keeper of the wildlife


NAME Les Bighorn

AGE 47

HOMETOWN Poplar, Montana

TRAINING Attended the Montana Law Enforcement Academy in Helena, Montana, and is now working toward a degree in history.

HE SAYS "An elder once told me that when an animal comes to you instead of running or flying away as you approach it, they are telling you that your heart is filled with goodness and your life is in harmony with the Creator."

WHEN HE'S NOT CHASING SWIFT FOXES "I create my own dance regalia, making things from beads, elk, moose and bison leather, and eagle feathers. I make it as an homage to the animals. It's a way of honoring them."

Les Bighorn aims a metal antenna toward an expanse of rolling grassland in northeastern Montana. At dusk, the receiver beeps faintly. "That's a beautiful sound," he says, smiling as he homes in on Yamni - a name that means number Three in Bighorn's native Dakota Sioux. The female swift fox is near her den. Bighorn jots data on a clipboard, then swings his truck around, the headlights sweeping across a hillside of buffalo grass.

Bighorn's own Dakota Sioux name, chosen by his grandmother at his birth, is Mato Akicita, or Bear Soldier. "Kind of fitting, don't you think?" the burly 47-year-old says with a grin.

As head wildlife technician and game warden, Bighorn has managed the reintroduction of swift fox - or sungidan ("shoon-gee-da") - on the 2-million-acre Fort Peck Sioux and Assiniboine Reservation since the program started in 2004. The collaborative effort now involves Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the World Wildlife Fund, Defenders of Wildlife and the Swift Fox Conservation Team, a U.S. and Canadian organization working toward long-term swift fox conservation.

"We began the project knowing nothing," Bighorn says. Money was too scarce to purchase the sophisticated equipment needed to survey the area for foxes, so Bighorn and his crew improvised. They cobbled together 3-by-3-foot boxes, filling each with soft, fine dirt to register tracks. They borrowed motion-sensing cameras and 50 box traps and scattered them across the vast prairie to see if the fleet, long-legged, big-eared canines had returned to Fort Peck on their own.

After checking traps daily for months and finding them empty, Bighorn finally caught a resident swift fox. "It validated our survey work and data," he says. "We did it right." Three months later, researchers released 10 foxes into the buffalo grass. As of March 2008, six are still alive. That's a good survival rate, Bighorn says.

The project has taught him a lot about the foxes, as well as about himself and his people. "I've talked to the elders about the ways of my Dakota ancestors and am learning the importance of the different animals," he says, noting that Dakota warriors revered the once-plentiful swift fox for its slyness and speed. "In some ways, my ancestors and the foxes lived a similar life," he explains. Both were pushed from the land by the tide of European settlement. Indiscriminate trapping, poisoning and the loss of short- and mid-grass prairies to cultivation eliminated the foxes from 90 percent of their historic range by the 1950s. The buffalo - staple food source for many Plains tribes - were also wiped out, he says, "and like the foxes, my ancestors had to move and adapt to a new way of life."

Bighorn's tone reveals his strong connection to the foxes, particularly to Yamni's father, Benjamin. A mortality signal from the receiver led Bighorn to Benjamin's radio-collar. Bighorn sprinkled tobacco and sage over the bits of fur and bones to ensure the fox a safe journey to heaven. The offering purified the ground to free the dead fox's spirit, Bighorn says, and protected the area for other foxes.

Even after two years of research and many hours of observation, the foxes continue to surprise Bighorn. A fox named Kristina traveled the edge of a fallow wheat field and put to rest the belief that the foxes would avoid cultivated land. Chaske, "first-born male," and Hepanna, "second-born male," both hunted in the daylight, defying the notion that the foxes are primarily nocturnal. "It shows the foxes are adapting to the habitat," learning the habits of native prey species like jackrabbits and Richardson's ground squirrels, Bighorn explains.

Though the Fort Peck project has no set recovery goals, Bighorn points to a recent $197,000 grant that will help restore sungidan to the people and the prairie for the long term. "Now that we have the funding, we are laying the groundwork for reintroductions we hope to have going later this year," he says.

"I like to call myself 'the keeper of the wildlife.' I strive to keep the swift fox alive and well on our reservation so he is here for future generations."

The author freelances from central Montana, where she writes about lifestyle, history and the outdoors.