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Lewis and Clark in North Dakota:
Wildlife Then & Now


Woolf, Prairie Wolf, Large Red Fox, and Prairie of Swift Fox Past Wolf Distribution Map for North Dakota
Key for Maps

Woolf, Prairie Wolf, Large Red Fox, and Prairie or Swift Fox (Wolves, Coyotes, Red Fox, and Swift Fox)

The fates and fortunes of the wild dogs were as much affected by each other as man. They have a stern pecking order— wolves kill coyotes, coyotes kill red fox, and red fox kill swift fox. In 1800 wolves were abundant on the northern Great Plains and seemed to accompany each herd of bison. Lewis and Clark, as well as other early travelers, often treated wolves and coyotes interchangeably in their notes. As a result it is difficult to decipher which species they are referring to at times.

Fur trade for wolves and other animals dramatically increased in the 1820s and 1830s. Wolves remained common, however, through the 1850s. By 1875 wolf numbers had declined dramatically and were reportedly rare east of the Little Missouri River. By 1890 only scattered reports are noted in journals and reports. Today individual wolves still occasionally drift into the state, but established packs are not found in North Dakota.

Coyotes were found throughout the state. With the demise of the wolf, coyotes were reported abundant in the Little Missouri badlands and common over much of the state between 1910 and 1920. Coyotes persisted in North Dakota despite more than $1.1 million paid out in bounties for wolves and coyotes between 1898 and 1943, and another $1.1 million spent between 1944 and 1961 on bounties for coyotes and red fox.

Historically, red fox were found throughout the state, but at relatively lower numbers than wolves and coyotes. Between 1801 and 1808 Alexander Henry, a fur trader in the northeastern corner of the state collected 2,842 wolf and coyote pelts, and only 1,132 red fox pelts. By the late 1870s, coyotes had declined and red fox became very common in the eastern third of the state. The introduction of a bounty system on coyotes in 1898 resulted in a dramatic increase in fox numbers. Between 1943 and 1959 the number of red fox bountied increased twenty-fold. The bounty system was eliminated in 1961. Today both coyotes and red fox are common throughout the state with numbers fluctuating primarily in response to outbreaks of mange and other diseases.

Historically, the little swift fox (size of a house cat) was found throughout all of North Dakota, but appeared to be very common only in the western third of the state. Swift fox numbers decreased as red fox numbers increased, and became scarce in much of the state by the late 1870s and 1880s. By 1920 they were thought to have been extirpated. In 1970 an animal was found dead in Slope County. None have been reported recently in North Dakota.

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