The swift fox (Vulpes velox) is North America's smallest fox
and averages about the size of a large house cat. This small,
nocturnal carnivore is found in the High Plains from western
Texas northward to southern Alberta, Canada. In Oklahoma, the
swift fox is found only in the shortgrass prairie region which
encompasses the three panhandle counties and adjacent parts of
Harper and Ellis counties. The swift fox is one of the most
elusive animals whose population is monitored by the Oklahoma
Department of Wildlife Conservation's Wildlife Diversity
Program. Because of its nocturnal behavior, secretive nature and
the sparse human population where it occurs, there are very few
people who have ever seen a swift fox.
The swift fox has been classified as a species of special concern in Oklahoma since the early 1990s and in 1994, the eleven states within its range formed a multi-state conservation team specifically for this species. ODWC monitors Oklahoma's swift fox population using a standard technique shared by other states. This involves conducting timed searches for swift fox tracks on bare surfaces (e.g. road margins, ditches, and the edges of plowed fields) where suitable habitat exists. Suitable habitat appears to exist in 104 townships in northwestern Oklahoma and swift fox track surveys are conducted in every other township (half of these or 52 townships) on a three-year rotation.
Swift foxes resemble very small coyotes and their tracks are similar in shape to a coyote's but are less than 1/6 their size. Because of their small size, it is easy to distinguish swift fox tracks from all other carnivores, but they are difficult to distinguish from the small front paw prints of the black-tailed jackrabbit. To separate the tracks of the two species, positive identifications cannot be based upon single tracks; instead, we look for track lines with 15 or more continuous tracks.
During the past two years, swift fox track surveys have been conducted during the fall in 54 townships in Cimarron, Texas and Beaver counties. Swift fox tracks have been located in 51 of these townships (94 percent) and at 66 separate locations (multiple sets of tracks in some townships). The swift fox appears to be widespread in the Panhandle, but there may not be many in each location. This species is found primarily in locations that are dominated by shortgrass prairie rangeland or locations where rangeland is intermixed with non-irrigated crop fields such as winter wheat.
In addition to fox tracks, we also record the presence of the tracks of other carnivore species and of jackrabbits. During the surveys, we have located track lines for coyotes (over 200), striped skunks (28), raccoons (10), badgers (16), red fox (2), and many black-tailed jackrabbits (over 360).