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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Fragile Legacy

Endangered, Threatened & Rare Animals of South Dakota

Swift Fox (Vulpes velox)

JPG--species photo species distribution map
Status: Federal Candidate, State Threatened

Description: This small fox is about the size of a large housecat. It is 27-34 inches (69-86 cm) long and weighs 4-6 pounds (1.8-2.7 kg). It has a pale buff back and a white underside. Other characteristics include its large triangular ears, dark spots on the muzzle below the eyes and a black-tipped, bushy tail.

Habitat and Habits: The swift fox inhabits open prairies, plains and shrubby desert areas away from extensively cultivated land. It is usually found in areas with gently rolling hills or undulating topography. In South Dakota, swift fox prefer short to midgrass prairies.

Unlike coyotes and other foxes, swift fox use den sites year-round. It may excavate its own den in sandy loam soil, usually on or near hilltops in moderate to heavily grazed short or midgrass prairie. Dens might also be dug in a sandy stream valley or along a fencerow. Swift fox may also occupy abandoned badger dens or prairie dog bun rows. Usually a nocturnal hunter, the swift fox is sometimes observed at dawn or dusk or during the day near its den entrance.

Swift fox breed in early spring, producing 4-5 pups (range 1-8) 51 days later. Pups emerge from the natal den at 1 month and are weaned at 6-7 weeks. Parents may move pups several times during the rearing period. Pups disperse from the natal area during late summer.

The swift fox is an opportunistic feeder on small mammals (prairie dogs, jackrabbits, ground squirrels), birds, insects (especially grasshoppers and crickets), berries, vegetation and carrion. Scavenging for roadkills may contribute to the number of swift fox killed by vehicles.

Distribution: This species was once abundant throughout much of the North American prairie. It is currently found in eastern New Mexico, eastern and northern Colorado, parts of Wyoming and Montana, northwestern Texas, western Kansas, the Panhandle of Oklahoma and western Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and reintroduced into Canada. The swift fox was historically found statewide in South Dakota. There are few recent reports, most of which originate from the southwestern quarter of the state.

Conservation Measures: The swift fox is a candidate for federal listing, reflecting its declining abundance. Agricultural practices, as well as recent recurring drought in the Midwest, have reduced habitat and prey abundance. The swift fox is easily trapped and readily takes poison bait intended for coyotes and red fox. Captive breeding has been successful in Canada and may be a useful recovery technique in other areas.

Protection in South Dakota has included listing as a state threatened species, transplant programs and den site secrecy. It is apparent that more intensive monitoring and management will be necessary to recover this species to a secure population level. Appreciation and management of the prairie dog ecosystem, with its many interdependent components, will undoubtedly aid swift fox recovery efforts.

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