Native species such as the nimble fox and the black-footed ferret disappeared from the Fort Belknap reserve in the United States many generations ago, wiped out by campaigns of poisoning, epidemics, and farm plows that have transformed the fields. The grass is wide open to arable land and pasture for livestock.
Now, with guidance from Native American elders and outside wildlife groups, students and interns from the tribal college are helping reintroduce small predators to protected area in northern Montana, stretching over more than 2,600 square kilometers (1,000 square miles) near the United States-Canada border.
Sakura Main, a 24-year-old Aaniiih woman coming to Fort Belknap’s Aaniiih Nakoda College in January, is helping locate and trap critically endangered ferrets to vaccinate them against deadly plague.
Her work is part of a program overseen by the tribe’s fishing and games department, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund.
The nocturnal animals live among the burrows of prairie dogs, where ferrets stalk rodents, wrapping themselves around their prey to strangle and kill them.
On a clear recent night, with Nakoda’s sacred site called the Snake Butte looming on the horizon, Main shone his flashlight into a long, thin wire trap atop a prairie dog’s den. Inside was the second ferret she would catch that night along with wildlife officer CJ Werk, the daughter of the former tribal president.
“We have one in there!” Main groaned softly.
“Well, is it really another one?” Werk replied, who was engaged in a friendly competition with another worker, her cousin, to catch the most ferrets. “I’ll rub it in.”
Rushing back to the “hospital trailer,” the animals were sedated and vaccinated against the sylvatic plague that their favorite prey carried. It was fitted with a microchip underneath its skin for future monitoring, before being released back into the prairie dogs to gentle cheers from Main and Werk.
Like the extinction of animals and plants Urge Across the globe, Native American tribes with limited funding are trying to reestablish threatened species and restore their habitats. increasingly parallel calls to “renewable” locations by revitalizing degraded natural systems.
But the direct relationship that Native Americans perceive between people and wild animals It distinguishes their approach from Western conservationists, who often emphasize the “management” of the environment, says Julie Thorstenson, executive director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Service. habitats and wildlife over which humans have the right to dominate.
“Western science sees humans as a sort of steward outside of land and ecosystems,” she said. “Indigenous people consider themselves part of it.”
The Nakoda and Aaniiih people living in Belknap Fort struggled to restore their land to a more wild state. Epidemics periodically wipe out ferret populations and half of the foxes released so far may have died or fled.
But tribe members say they are committed to rebuilding native species with deep cultural significance to restore balance between people and the natural world. The elders of the tribe speak nostalgically of the long-standing Swift Fox Association, which appreciates secret animals and uses their pelts and tails to adorn braids and costumes. They call foxes and weasels their “relatives”.
“It’s like you have your family back,” said Mike Fox, former director of the Fort Belknap wildlife program. “We’re in a pretty good position in the Northern Plains to bring these animals back and are about to complete the circle of the original animals here.”
Before the arrival of Europeans, up to a million ferrets occupied an estimated 400,000 square kilometers (156,000 sq mi) from Canada to Mexico, wherever prairie dogs are found.
By the 1960s, conversion of grasslands to crops, plague, and poisoning campaigns had reduced the prairie dog’s territory to 5,700 square kilometers (2,200 square miles). The ferret was thought to be extinct, but was rediscovered in 1981 on a farm in Meeteetse, Wyoming.
They are one of the most endangered mammals in North America, with only about 300 in the wild, including less than 40 in Fort Belknap. The populations were supported by a captive breeding program to combat periodic declines due to plague.
Prairie dogs are still considered a nuisance to ranchers, including in Fort Belknap, because they eat grass. Fox said prairie dog shooting tournaments were once held every year to raise money for the tribe’s fishing and games division. The Fort Belknap tournaments are over and prairie dogs, the squirrel-sized rodents common throughout the plains of the United States, are now recognized as vital to ferrets.
Parts of Fort Belknap are also being resettled with bison, a species that sustained Native Americans for centuries before white settlers killed them. The bison is being restored by dozens of tribes across the United States, which is similar to efforts in the Pacific Northwest to maintain wild populations of salmon, another key species that provides food. food for the tribes.
The work of rehabilitating black-footed ferrets and nimble foxes is different. Unlike bison and salmon, foxes and ferrets are not food sources. They live in the dark, hunt mainly at night and are rarely seen.
Shaun Grassel, a former biologist with the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said ferrets have been returned to seven sanctuaries in the Northern Plains and two tribal sites in the southwest, while The agile foxes were returned to four sanctuaries.
Less than 91 meters (100 yards) from the small cage holding three agile foxes about to be released at Fort Belknap, tribal elders Buster Moore and John Allen sat among the cacti and bushes and passed a piped 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 ground, explaining that they prayed for the foxes, the tribes and the land itself.
“It is self-sustaining; it helps Mother Earth. Everything is in balance,” Moore said of the restoration work that was held that day. “Pipedogs, wolves, agile foxes, red foxes, black-footed ferrets.”
Once abundant on the plains, agile foxes now occupy about 40% of their original habitat. Since 2020, tribes and universities have been working with scientists from the Smithsonian National Zoo to capture about 100 foxes from healthy populations in Wyoming and Montana and move 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 the cage. They used wire cutters to cut the link and pull it out.
After the biologist and assistants left, a fox poked its head out of the prairie dog’s burrow inside the cage. It rushed out the door, followed within minutes by two more.
They disappeared over the rolling landscape and into the bright sun behind the Bearpaw Mountains to the west.
“What they need is a little luck,” said the elder Allen. “They need to survive the winter, and then they won’t have to worry about that, you know, because they’ve got all the skills. So we urge our loved ones to protect them.”