Sarah Nevison Q&A

Those of us lucky enough to live near the Great Plains have a special (and lovely) canine to enjoy (in addition to coyotes and red foxes): the swift fox. This small prairie dweller was nearly extirpated in the 20th century, but since then it has made a comeback and is being reintroduced to some former haunts. South Dakota State University’s Sarah Nevison is studying these foxes in Badlands National Park and she has agreed to share her story. Thanks, Sarah!!

  1. How did you become interested in wildlife?                                                                                                                          Surprisingly, I wasn’t very outdoorsy as a child. My family had a cabin in northern Minnesota but I didn’t enjoy going. My brothers and dad would frequently go hunting and fishing but I was never interested. I knew I liked animals and started an undergrad degree at the University of Minnesota under Pre-Veterinary, and although I didn’t want to be a vet I knew I’d find the right major once I started. I found Wildlife and Conservation Biology, but I didn’t know it was my career path until junior year. A graduate student walked into one of my classes and described a position he had open for studying spotted owls in northern California. The more he spoke the more I feel in love with the idea of studying wildlife outdoors. Needless to say, I got the job and knew it was my career from the first night in the field.

SDSU NRM

  1. Some earlier projects you worked on were with spotted owls and flying squirrels, among others. Can you tell us a little about your experiences before working on swift foxes?                                                                                                                     Like I said, my first job was working with spotted owls in northern California through the University of Minnesota. It was a habitat, reproduction, and demography study that is still ongoing. I learned what it was like to be a wildlife researcher and knew it was my career path. Then, I worked with flying squirrels around Lake Tahoe. That was an awesome job, beautiful views every day, and lots of radio telemetry. Then, I started my first of two summers working with Kemp’s ridley sea turtles in Texas as an intern at Sea Turtle, Inc. on South Padre Island. I monitored the beaches for nesting turtles, rehabilitated injured and stranded turtles, and gave public presentations. It was a fantastic summer. The next summer I continued working with sea turtles but for Padre Island National Seashore in Corpus Christi. This was my first uniformed National Park Service gig, and I have so many great memories of finding turtles on the beach. That same summer I moved up to South Dakota and started another NPS job with Badlands National Park, hiking around studying black-footed ferrets, prairie dogs, bobcats, and mule deer.
  1. How did you come to study swift foxes in the Badlands?                                                                                                                Short answer: I knew a guy (as it usually happens.) My supervisor at Badlands knew of a graduate project that was going to be funded, studying swift foxes in the park. He got me in contact with his graduate advisor from college, who was going to be advising this project as well, and the rest is history.

NPS

  1. What are the questions your research is trying to answer about swift foxes?                                                                                     I am looking at as many facets of swift fox ecology and biology as I can. I am collaring foxes to study home range, habitat use, den sites, and mortality. I am counting pups and looking at reproduction. I am trying to find out if sylvatic plague (which has destroyed the majority of rodent populations in the area) is affecting the foxes using blood and flea samples. I am developing a new model to age swift foxes based on tooth wear, where no model existed before. And I’m documenting the current distribution of foxes using camera and track stations. The more I study them, the more questions I have!
  1. I read that you basically grab trapped swift foxes and process and collar them without the use of tranquilizers. How did that method develop? I assume it’s much safer since you’re not messing with anesthetic in the field, but it seems like it could be a bit dicey for you and your team.                                                                                                                                         This is the most common question I get! The method of physically restraining swift foxes has been used for years, as opposed to chemical immobilization. Not only do I eliminate the cost of drugs and training, but I also reduce the amount of time it would take to process the animal: I do not have to wait for it to be ‘knocked out,’ nor do I have to wait for it to ‘come to.’ We are very careful when we handle each fox and try to reduce as much stress on the animal as possible. We speak in quiet voices and process them in a quick manner. Foxes are removed from live traps and coaxed into a canvas sack where they are weighed. Then, the handler will scruff the fox with one hand, remove it from the sack, and place it on their lap; while their other hand (with a thick leather glove) covers the ears, eyes, and mouth. Once scruffed and visual and auditory stress removed, most foxes remain quite calm.

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    Courtesy of Sarah Nevison.

  1. How is the population doing in your study area?                                                                                                                                That is a hard question for me to answer seeing as I only have one season completed. However, preliminary analysis comparing to the density of foxes in the area shortly after their reintroduction (2003-2006) to now, appears to show a lower density of foxes in the population. There are many potential factors leading to this decline, related to recent weather patterns, increased coyote numbers (their main predator, apart from humans), and the recent plague epizootic. I can better answer this question in two years after my thesis is complete!
Courtesy of Sarah Nevison.

Courtesy of Sarah Nevison.

  1. What are the swift foxes in your study eating?                                                                                                                                          Swift foxes in this area eat rabbits, birds, rodents (including voles and prairie dogs), and grasshoppers. I will be analyzing swift fox diets using stable isotope analysis of hair samples when my field seasons are complete and can give you an even better idea once I’m done!
Courtesy of Sarah Nevison.

Courtesy of Sarah Nevison.

  1. Can you talk a bit about coyote interactions with your study animals?                                                                                           Coyotes are the main predator of swift foxes. Coyotes are territorial and will kill a swift fox in their territory. Interesting to note is they will not eat the fox, only kill it. Coyote-swift fox interactions have been studied at length in the region, but I am not focusing heavily on this interaction.
  1. If you feel comfortable speculating, would you guess that if there was a place where wolves returned to a plains environment along with coyotes and swift foxes, would wolves depress coyote numbers to the advantage of swift foxes (as wolves have done in Yellowstone with coyotes and red foxes)?                                                                                                       That is quite the speculation and won’t say too much other than top-down theory is not as strong as bottom-up. And, with wolves in the environment, would that not be yet another predator?
  1. Aside from coyotes, what other sources of mortality do swift foxes face in the Badlands?                                                     Apart from coyotes, humans pose a huge threat to swift foxes. Well over half of the mortalities I have found have been vehicle collisions. Swift foxes often live near roads and utilize them for scavenging food and as a means to get from here to there. Although these foxes are quite swift, they cannot escape from every car. I’ve seen adult foxes cross Interstate 90 without hesitation, but it’s the pups that tend to get hit. Humans also destroy fox habitat, converting prairie to cropland or human development.
  1. How would you describe swift foxes? Are they reserved around people or are they bolder? Are they easily seen outside of a baited trap?                                                                                                                                                                                                    As wild animals, swift foxes will never be comfortable around humans. However, foxes in my study area are regularly seen by visitors and locals (usually on roads or sometimes near their dens), but only if one knows where to look.
  1. What other wildlife species do you come across as part of your study?                                                                                               I have come across many traps containing skunks (that is an adventure) as well as a cottontail rabbit and a porcupine. All were released unharmed. I notice quite a few coyotes and jackrabbits while surveying for the foxes at night. I’ve also investigated many swift fox reports, only to find out it was a red fox.
  1. How would you describe your feelings about the Great Plains?                                                                                                        My feelings have only grown to love the Great Plains, they are very under-appreciated. I did not know what the prairie was until I worked within it. There are so many animals, so many plants, so many holes and rocks to investigate. The rolling hills and the grasses mixed with the badlands backdrop provide the best sunsets in the US, and I’ve been all over. The prairie is very resilient but it still needs our help.
  1. For people who love the Plains and swift foxes, how can they help the species?                                                                       Knowledge of the species is enough to help the species. Donate to a worthwhile cause, there are many out there. Supporting a program that helps any species of the Great Plains helps swift fox, whether its bison or black-footed ferrets or native plant species. Then, share your passion with others. Visit the National Parks and Grasslands, State Parks, nature centers, and zoos that house native species like black-footed ferrets; hike outside and explore, and share what you learn with others. A new found appreciation for the prairie is what will save the prairie. And support the federal, state, and non-profit organizations that manage and support the Great Plains, they do good work.
attaching collar . nevison

Courtesy of Sarah Nevison.

  1. It might be a premature question, but once this study is done, what comes next for you?                                                          Oh goodness, I can’t even think that far! After grad school, I hope to get a position researching wildlife outdoors. It can be with the federal government, a state government, a university, or a non-profit. I could see myself in any state in the country, but I’d love to live near mountains, trees, or water (sadly, the Badlands offer none of these.) Being a native Minnesotan, it is hard for me to live without trees and water.
  1. Is there anything else you’d like to add?                                                                                                                                                    If you see a swift fox, let me know!
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