The Fort Belknap Reservation in America was home to native species like swift foxes, black-footed ferrets, and many other species. They were extinct due to disease, poisoning campaigns, and the agricultural plows that transformed the open prairie into cropland, and cattle pastures.
Students and interns at the tribal schools are now helping to reintroduce these tiny predators to the northern Montana reservations, which covers more than 1,600 miles near the U.S. Canadian border.
Sakura Main, an Aaniiih woman aged 24, will be attending Fort Belknap’s Aaniiih Nakoda College this January. She will help locate and capture the critically endangered ferrets so that they can be vaccinated against a deadly plague.
Her Work is part of a program that is overseen by the tribe’s fish and game department in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund.
The prairie dog colonies are home to nocturnal animals that live in hilly burrows. Ferets hunt rodents and wrap themselves around them to strangle or kill them.
Main shined her flashlight down a long, thin wire trap that was perched on top of a prairie dog hole. It was home to CJ Werk, a former tribal president’s daughter.
“We have one in!” Main softly exclaimed.
“Wow! That’s another one!” Werk responded in friendly competition with her cousin, to catch as many ferrets as possible. “I’m going rub it in.”
The animal was brought back to the “hospital wagon” where it was anesthetized. After that, it was vaccinated against the forest disease carried by their prey. It was fitted with a microchip under its skin to allow for future tracking. The animal was then released into the prairie dog colony to the cheers of Main and Werk.
As animal and plant deaths accelerate around the globe, Native American tribes are seeking to restore endangered species and their habitats. This is in line with growing calls to place “rewilding” by restoring degraded natural systems.
According to Julie Thorstenson (executive director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society), the direct relationship Native Americans see between humans and wildlife is what sets them apart from Western conservationists who often focus on “management” of wildlife that humans have control over.
She said that Western science sees humans as an external steward of the environment and the land. “Indigenous people see theirself as part of it,” she said.
Fort Belknap’s Nakoda-Aaniiih residents have struggled to restore the land to its natural state. Half of the foxes released in recent years may have died or fled due to disease.
Tribesmen insist that they are committed to rebuilding indigenous species of deep cultural significance in order to restore balance between humanity and nature. Tribal elders talk nostalgically about the Swift Fox Society, a secretive society that valued the animals and used their tails and pelts to decorate hair braids. They refer to the foxes as their “relatives” and the ferrets as their “relatives”.
Mike Fox, former director for Fort Belknap’s wildlife programs, says that it is like having your family members back. “We have a good place in the Northern Plains to bring back these animals and complete the circle that was originally here.”
Prior to European settlement, approximately one million ferrets occupied approximately 400,000 square kilometers (156,000 sq mi), from Canada to Mexico, where prairie dogs were discovered.
In the 1960s, prairie dogs were reduced to 5,700 sq km (2,200 sq mi) by conversion of grasslands to crops, pests and poisoning campaigns. The extinct ferret was believed to have been lost, but they were rediscovered on a ranch near Meetetse in Wyoming in 1981.
They are one of North America’s most endangered mammals, with less than 300 remaining in the wild, and 40 at Fort Belknap. To counter periodic decimation from the plague, populations are supported by a captive breeding program.
Prairie dogs are still considered a nuisance by farmers, including those on Fort Belknap. They eat grass and are therefore considered a nuisance. Fox stated that annual prairie dog shooting tournaments were once held in order to raise money for the tribe’s fish and game department. The Fort Belknap tournaments are over. Prairie dogs, a squirrel-sized rodent that is common on the plains of the US are now considered essential for ferrets.
Fort Belknap is also being repopulated by bison, a species that has kept Native Americans alive for centuries. Dozens of tribes across the US are restoring bison, similar to efforts in the Pacific Northwest that sustain wild salmon populations. Wild salmon is another keystone species that has provided food to tribes.
The restoration of black-footed ferrets, and fast foxes, is a different task. Foxes and ferrets, unlike salmon and bison, are not food sources. They live in the shadows and hunt at night, so they are seldom seen.
According to Shaun Grassel (a former biologist for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota), ferrets were reintroduced on seven reservations on the Northern Plains, and two tribal areas in Southwest. Swift foxes were reintroduced on four reservations.
At less than 300 feet from a small pen that contained three swift foxes, Tribal Elders Buster Moore (John Allen) sat among cacti, brush, and passed a pipe through a circle. Women sat nearby and listened, while men sat around the pipe, with women watching and listening.
After the ceremony, Moore — whose Nakoda name is Buffalo Bull Horn — rubbed his hands over the hard earth and explained that they prayed for the foxes, the tribes, and the land itself.
“It sustains itself; it helps Mother Earth. Moore spoke about the restoration work being celebrated that day. “Prairie dogs. Wolfs. Swift fox. Red fox. Black-footed Ferrets.
Swift foxes once dominated the plains but now they occupy around 40% of their original habitat. The university and tribes are collaborating with scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in order to relocate approximately 100 swift foxes from Wyoming and Montana to Fort Belknap.
Moore spoke while Tim Vosburgh (the reserve’s fish-and-wildlife biologist) and two assistants approached foxes in a pen. They used wire cutters for cutting the chain link and pulling it open.
After After the assistants and biologist left, a fox emerged from a hole in the coop’s prairie dog hole. The fox quickly escaped the opening and was followed by two other foxes within minutes.
They vanished over rolling countryside to the west, into the bright sun behind Bearpaw Mountains.
Allen, the oldest, said that all they needed was a little luck. “They have to survive the winter and then they don’t have to worry about it, you know, because they have all the skills. That is why we call on our relatives to protect them.”