The swift fox is an endangered species in Nebraska, but little is known about them. The first thing researchers are trying to learn is where exactly these Nebraska natives call home.
When Lucía Corral moved to Nebraska to study for her Ph.D., she knew she wanted to research predators.
Swift fox grow to be about 12 inches tall, or about the size of a cat. Corral said they like to make their dens in loamy, sandy soil. (Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)
For the last few months, her desk has been in the cab of a pickup truck.
From this mobile office, Corral told me most days you can’t beat the view, and she would know considering how much time she spends here.
“[We drive] around 200 miles per day in general,” Corral said. “In some counties the distances are really long. In some places where access to properties is easier, we drive less than that.”
Corral has almost completed her first year of a five-year study. The purpose of her research is to determine where exactly swift fox are in Nebraska.
Swift fox are small predators about the size of a cat. They’re endangered in Nebraska and no one really knows how many are left.
Corral said historically they lived in the western third of the state, so that’s where she’s conducting her research. It’s an area about 26,000 square miles, or the size of West Virginia.
Corral said she has set up numerous camera traps at more than 1,200 locations across Western Nebraska. To keep track, Corral makes sure the first picture taken by each camera is of an informational board containing camera number, date, and GPS location. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Corral said in an area where 85 percent or more of the land is privately owned, the importance of good working relationships with farmers and ranchers can’t be understated.
“Most of our sites are on private land,” Corral said. “The sites we are surveying at are in somebody’s property. So without their help, I don’t think it would be possible.”
Stan Haines is one of the more than 150 landowners participating in the project.
“It’s quite an animal. I didn’t realize they were so small. [Corral] gave me brochures on it. I’ve seen the pictures, but I’ve never seen a live one,” Haines said.
When working in such vast open areas, Corral said it’s important to know what type of terrain swift fox like the most. Mainly short and mixed-grass prairies, or pastures used by cattle.
Once a suitable spot is selected, Corral said that’s when the real work begins.
Alan Harrington assists Corral in her research. He said their primary tool for gathering data is a motion-activated trail camera.
“They also have a heat sensor. A thermal sensor, so any detection to set off the camera is through motion or heat. We also have to set them up so that they take photos in sets of three,” Harrington explained.
Corral and Harrington have set up trail cameras at more than 1,200 sites across Western Nebraska. The cameras are left for a minimum of ten days.
Each trail camera is attached to some sort of support. Corral said she likes to use existing items like this fence post to attach cameras to, because it doesn't disturb the environment as much. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
In front of each trail camera, a wooden stake is driven into the ground. The stake's purpose is to hold the lure, a spoonful of skunk-scented petroleum jelly on top. The stake is also sprayed with fish oil at its base. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News
A few feet in front of each camera, a wooden stake is driven into the ground. After the stake is secured the lure, a dollop of skunk-scented petroleum jelly, is smeared atop the stake.
“So typically, if we have a camera in a cattle pasture, we could end up with upwards of 15,000 photos. Cattle are very curious with the cameras. They’ll find it right away, and they also smell the lure,” Harrington said.
Sorting through all those pictures is time consuming, but vital. Corral’s is the first formal survey of this size conducted on swift fox in the state. She she still has hundreds of thousands of photos to look over, but Corral identified foxes at 9 different locations last spring. This past fall, swift foxes were spotted at 24 different areas.
“This fall, we doubled the number of sites and the number of cameras. We have found them where we expect to find them, which is basically short-grass prairies and mixed-grass prairies. Most of them in the northwest portion of the handle in Nebraska,” Corral said.
As of this month, swift fox have been seen on trail cameras in Sioux, Sheridan, Kimball, and Dawes counties. After collecting this basic information about where the animals live, Corral said the next step is studying how swift fox interact with their environment.
“It’s not only conservation, but it’s management too. This species might play a real important role in controlling all other species and other populations like small mammals. For example; prairie dogs. It’s a big issue sometimes,” Corral explained.
The results of Corral’s study could impact Nebraska’s human population as well.
According to Joseph Fontaine, Corral’s research adviser at the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, “When you’re dealing with endangered species, there’s a lot of regulations that surround that.”
To date, Corral said swift fox have been photographed in 33 different locations, mostly in the northwest area of the Nebraska panhandle. Corral said the cameras have also documented more than 25 species of mammals and several bird species as well. (Photo courtesy of Lucía Corral)
“If you’re putting in a wind-farm or putting in an oil well or gas line or whatever it might be, there’s no reason you have to be mitigating or under those regulations if that’s not where those species are occupying. Well, the only way to know that is to know where the species is occupying,” Fontaine said.
From the cab of her mobile office, Corral said the next phase of her research should begin this summer. From where she’s sitting, that’s thousands of miles, and probably hundreds of thousands more photos, down the road.
Editor's Note: To see more reporting on Lucía Corral's swift fox research project, click here.