The Furbearers of North Dakota

February 13, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

The increasing presence of mountain lions in North Dakota has received a lot of attention over the past few years, but during the same time, a couple other native species are also perhaps returning to the state after long absences.

The swift fox was once abundant across the prairies of North Dakota, but preferred the shortgrass prairies in the southwestern corner of the state. The shorter grass allowed them to search for prey and better detect their main predator, the coyote.

In the early 1900s, poisoning efforts aimed at removing coyotes and wolves from the prairie took their toll on swift foxes as well. Swift foxes, curious by nature, were easily drawn into poisoning stations.

By the end of the 1920s, the swift fox no longer existed in North Dakota.

The swift fox is the smallest member of the canine family in North America. Measuring less than 3 feet from nose to the tip of its tail, they are roughly the size of a large house cat. Their fur is yellowish-tan, with gray along the back with some white mixed in on the belly and throat. Its most distinct color feature is the black tip on the end of its bushy tail, distinguishing it from the red fox, which has a white-tipped tail. Its large ears are also conspicuous on its diminutive body.

Swift foxes make their home underground, using existing animal burrows. They spend most daylight hours in the safety of their burrows, emerging to hunt as the sun goes down. Swift foxes feed mainly on small mammals and birds, but are opportunistic and will eat what they can catch. At some times of the year insects make up a majority of their diet.

In 1990, biologists in Saskatchewan reintroduced swift foxes to the Canadian prairies bordering Montana. Since then, swift fox populations have been established in Montana and South Dakota. South Dakota currently has three reintroduction sites, including Badlands National Park.

Last year, three swift foxes were documented in North Dakota. While unfortunately they were all discovered as road kills, all three had radio-collars used by researchers in South Dakota to track their movements. These movements into the state give researchers hope that swift foxes will one day reestablish a presence in North Dakota.

Another pioneering species is coming back into the state from another direction. The American marten – also sometimes called a pine marten, though the pine marten is a separate species found in Europe – is establishing a renewed presence in the Turtle Mountains.

The American marten is a member of the weasel family. It is much larger in size and darker in color than another occasional woodland visitor to North Dakota, the fisher. The marten has soft, dark-reddish brown fur with a lighter cream patch on the throat. It has a long, bushy tail that is about one-third of its total body length.

The marten’s diet consists primarily of small rodents and mice, but occasionally includes wild fruit. The American marten’s habitat preference is dense conifer forests. In the late 1980s these animals were reintroduced on the Canadian side of the Turtle Mountains and the population has since slowly spread southward.

Martens and swift fox are considered a furbearer with a closed season and state law requires any incidentally taken animals be turned over to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Add in the river otter, which also has an expanding population with the Red River drainage, and North Dakota has a nice variety of native species that are returning to the state. It is an interesting phenomenon that tells us we humans have learned a lot about wildlife in the past 100 years, but there is still much to discover.


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