FORT BELKNAP AGENCY, Mt. (AP) – Native species such as swift foxes and black-footed ferrets disappeared from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation generations ago, wiped out by campaigns of poisoning, disease and agricultural plows that transformed open grasslands where nomadic tribes once roamed croplands and cattle pastures.
Now, with guidance from elders and outside wildlife groups, tribal college students and interns are helping reintroduce small predators to the northern Montana reservation that spans more than 1,000 square miles (2 600 square kilometres) near the Canada-US border.
Sakura Main, a 24-year-old Aaniiih woman entering Aaniiih Nakoda College in Fort Belknap in January, helps locate, trap and vaccinate critically endangered ferrets against the deadly plague in a program overseen by the Tribal Fish and Game Department.
The nocturnal animals live among the mounded burrows of prairie dog colonies, where ferrets stalk rodents nearly as large as themselves, wrapping themselves around their prey to strangle and kill it.
On a recent clear night, with the sacred site of Nakoda Snake Butte looming on the horizon, Main shined a flashlight on a long wired trap atop a prairie dog burrow. Inside was the second ferret she had caught that night with fellow wildlife worker CJ Werk, daughter of the former tribal chairman.
“We have one in there!” Main exclaimed softly.
“Wow, really another one?” answered Werk, who was engaged in a friendly competition with another worker, his cousin, to catch the most ferrets. “I’ll rub it.”
Hastily brought back to the “hospital trailer”, the animal was sedated and vaccinated against the sylvatic plague carried by its favorite prey, a work carried out in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. He had a microchip inserted under his skin for future tracking, before being released back into the prairie dog colony to the gentle cheers of Main and Werk.
As animal and plant extinctions accelerate around the world, Native American tribes with limited funding are trying to reestablish endangered species and restore their habitat – moves alongside growing calls for ‘rewildered’ places by reviving degraded natural systems.
But the direct relationship that Native Americans perceive between people and wildlife differentiates their approach from Western conservationists, who often emphasize “management” of habitat and wildlife over which humans have dominance, said Julie Thorstenson, executive director of Native American Fish. & Wildlife Society.
“Western science sees humans as a kind of external managers of the earth and the ecosystem,” she said. “Indigenous people see themselves as part of that.”
The Nakoda and Aaniiih peoples struggled to restore their land to a wilder state. The plague periodically wipes out ferret populations, and half of the foxes released so far may have died or fled.
But tribesmen say they are determined to rebuild native species with deep cultural significance to restore the balance between humans and the natural world. The elders of the tribe speak longingly of the long-dead swift fox society, which valued secretive and rarely seen animals and used their skins and tails to adorn hair braids and costumes. They call foxes and ferrets their “parents”.
“It’s like being reunited with your family,” said Mike Fox, former director of Fort Belknap’s wildlife program. “We have a very good place in the northern plains to bring these animals back and pretty much complete the circle of animals that were originally here.”
Prior to European settlement, up to a million ferrets occupied approximately 156,000 square miles (400,000 square kilometers) from Canada to Mexico – wherever prairie dogs were found. By the 1960s, conversion of grasslands to crops, plague and poisoning campaigns reduced prairie dogs to 2,200 square miles (5,700 square kilometers). Ferrets were presumed extinct and then rediscovered in 1981 on a ranch in Meeteetse, Wyoming.
They are one of North America’s most endangered mammals, with only about 300 in the wild, with fewer than 40 at Fort Belknap. Populations are supported by a captive breeding program to counter periodic decimations by plague.
Prairie dogs are still considered a nuisance among ranchers, including at Fort Belknap, because they eat grass. Prairie dog shooting tournaments were once held annually to raise money for the Tribal Fish and Game Department, Fox said. Tournaments are gone in Fort Belknap and prairie dogs – squirrel-sized rodents common on the American plains – are now recognized as vital to ferrets.
Parts of Fort Belknap are also populated with bison, a species that supported Native Americans for centuries before white settlers killed them. Bison are being restored by dozens of tribes across the United States, similar to efforts in the Pacific Northwest to maintain populations of wild salmon, another keystone species that provides food for tribes.
Black-footed ferret and swift fox recovery work is different. Unlike bison and salmon, foxes and ferrets are not food sources. They live in the shade, hunting mainly at night and are rarely seen.
Ferrets have been reintroduced to seven reservations in the northern plains and two tribal sites in the southwest, while swift foxes have been returned to four reservations, said Shaun Grassel, former biologist for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in Dakota. from South.
Less than 100 yards (91 yards) from a small enclosure containing three swift foxes about to be released at Fort Belknap, tribal elders Buster Moore and John Allen sat among cacti and brushy grasses and passed a pipe around a circle of men, while the women sat nearby, watching and listening.
After the ceremony, Moore – whose Nakoda name is Buffalo Bull Horn – rubbed his hands on the hard earth, explaining that they were praying for the foxes, the tribes, the earth itself.
“He supports himself, he helps Mother Earth, everything keeps the balance,” Moore said of the restoration work celebrated that day. “Prairie dogs, wolves, swift fox, red fox, black-footed ferrets.”
Once abundant on the plains, swift foxes now occupy about 40% of their original habitat. Since 2020, the tribes and college have worked with scientists at the Smithsonian National Zoo to capture approximately 100 foxes from healthy populations in Wyoming and Montana and relocate them to Fort Belknap.
As Moore spoke, the reserve’s fish and wildlife biologist, Tim Vosburgh, and two assistants cautiously approached a few foxes in an enclosure. They used wire cutters to cut the chain link and opened it.
When they got about 50 yards (46 yards) away, a fox poked its head out of a prairie dog burrow inside the enclosure. He soon darted through the opening, followed a few minutes later by two others.
They disappeared across the rolling landscape and into the dazzling sun behind the Bearpaw Mountains to the west.
“What they need is a little luck,” Allen the elder said. “They have to survive the winter and they won’t have to worry about that anymore, you know, because they have all the skills. We therefore call on our loved ones to protect them.
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