In my last blog, I mentioned how rewilding threatens UK farmers’ identities, particularly as food producers. My own experience of the social and cultural dynamics surrounding a rewilding project was in a very different context. I was working with Clio Smeeton and Ken Weagle of the Cochrane Ecological Institute in Alberta, Canada where they bred swift foxes for reintroduction. A request for swift fox individuals for a rewilding project came from the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana who were (and still are) attempting to restore the biodiversity on their lands to something approaching that before colonisation and I was lucky enough to manage the project for a few years.
The swift fox is a cultural icon for the tribe and its extirpation from the Lands probably occurred due to overhunting for its pelt, habitat degradation etc. The Tribe had a Swift fox Society, the members of which were warriors. Thus, the species has high intrinsic cultural value for Blackfeet Tribe members both on and off the reservation. Awareness of the programme was high among reservation residents but lacking in people off the reservation who were not Blackfeet tribe members. Such a difference can only be attributed to the lack of discussion about the project off the reservation perhaps indicative of deeper divisions. However, when I asked ranchers farming off the reservation for their opinion about the foxes, they expressed positive views because of the small sie of the fox so it poses no danger to livestock and it preys on ground squirrels which most ranchers hate with a passion.
There were numerous challenges working with the Blackfeet who viewed the fox as an old friend returning home and didn’t really care what the outside world thought of the programme. Like many Native American groups, they were uncertain about the necessity of invasively monitoring the released foxes to ascertain survivorship. However, they did very generously allowed us to radio collar a small percentage of the released individuals. The release site was sacred to the tribe and each release took place there every year. This may have meant that each tranche of released foxes had to move further from the release site to set up a territory apart from that of foxes released in preceding years. None of this really made any difference to the foxes who bred in the spring after the first release and have continued to do very well. However, as a zoologist, I wanted data for publication but because of the rather unsystematic way we went about the work, reviewers were unconvinced by our results. That didn’t faze the Blackfeet though because they can now see the swift fox daily and are happy that an important part of their cultural heritage has returned. This experience was instrumental in my evolving into a conservation social scientist because it taught me that conservation and rewilding isn’t all about science – it’s about hearts and minds too.