By Russell Graves
DALHART, Texas — North of this Texas Panhandle ranching community, there isn’t much to stop the wind. A vast prairie cleaves horizontally into an even bigger sky.
If you get past the row crops and out to the big ranch country, you’ll find a wild land that’s remained virtually unchanged. Short grasses carpet the prairie and yuccas point their green barbed leaves towards the heavens, waiting for rain to fall. While rains do fall intermittently, the band of Texas landscape that runs along the state’s long western edge gets barely over a foot of rain annually.
The semi arid country sits below the foothills of the Rocky Mountain range to the west. Eons of sediment washed down from mountains to create the Great Plains and its the same mountains that influence the region’s weather. As clouds gather over the mountains, moisture is wrung from them. The result is a north to south running dry slot that encompasses about a quarter of the Texas landscape.
This patch of semi-arid ground is suited for many plant and animal species that are unique to this part of Texas. It’s a place where the density of people per square mile is scant and trees are just as rare.
Prairie dogs, while not as plentiful as historical records indicate, are still numerous. Their incessant burrowing crates habitat that supports numerous other high plains species like pronghorn antelope and a variety of reptiles and invertebrates. The prairie dogs themselves are a meal for animals higher up on the food chain.
As the sun rose across the immense prairie, my pal Chad and I were creeping through the shortgrass along a ranch road in his Ford F-250. Chad is an outfitter and a couple of months before to the opening day of the pronghorn season, we were scouting for big males for his clients to hunt.
From our vantage, emptiness was all around. East to west there was prairie, an old barbed wire fence immediately outside the passenger side door, the rutted ranch road in which we parked, a prairie dog town, and more undulating prairie as far as we could see. Across the prairie dog colony – perhaps 400 yards away – we watch a small band of half dozen pronghorn antelopes skirt the town’s margins.
As we glassed the antelope, my binoculars began to wander. Suddenly, prairie dogs skittered about the town. Running from burrow to burrow, they weren’t as concerned with the pronghorns as we were. It was business as usually in dog town — except for one thing: about one hundred yards from the truck I saw what I thought were baby coyotes.
“Look, Chad. Look at those coyotes!”
From a personal standpoint, I thought the find was significant as I’d never seen as many baby coyotes in one spot. Only when I put the binoculars to my eyes did I realize my snap identification was wrong.
The creatures were foxes, Swift foxes.
Until 1995, swift foxes were thought to be all but extirpated in Texas. Now, I am staring at five of them, and they are staring right back.
Camera bolted to the truck window, I snapped a few shots and then did all I knew to do: I squeaked as if I were calling a dog. When the sound traveled across the town, a male, lying next to the others stood up with his ears perked.
I squeaked again, and the fox ran toward the truck. Bounding across the prairie dog town, he stopped only 15 yards away. I am forever grateful to have been reared in Texas, but in this moment, I felt especially lucky.
Here was a Swift fox, one of the rarest mammals found in Texas, standing a mere 45 feet away, and posing for my camera.
Swift Fox Rapid Facts
Description: A smallish canine, usually light brown in color, standing 12-16 inches as the shoulder, the size of a common house cat.
Range: Western grasslands of North America, such as Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
Diet: Rabbits, prairie dogs, ground squirrels, mice, birds, reptiles, amphibians, berries and seeds.
Field notes: Animal got its name because it is, in fact, swift. The Swift hunts at night, spending most of its daylight hours in underground burrows. This fox mates for life.