Canid Distribution and the Potential Impacts of Energy Development in Nebraska

Conversion of grasslands throughout the Great Plains has led to significant declines in the distribution and abundance of a variety of grassland obligate species and associated increases in habitat generalists. For example, the distribution of generalist carnivores, including coyote (Canis latrans) and red fox (Vulpes vulpes) have increased throughout much of North America, while the closely related grassland obligate swift fox (Vulpes velox) has undergone significant declines. In Nebraska, swift fox is currently estimated to occupy only 21% of its historical range, while coyotes have increased in numbers and range throughout Nebraska. It is not surprising that generalists such as coyotes are capable of thriving in highly altered human landscapes, but what is less clear is why swift fox fail to occupy the 42% of Nebraska that continues to contain suitable habitat.

As the largest canid in Nebraska, coyote is dominant to swift fox and is often cited as an important source of mortality for swift fox. As such, increase in the abundance and distribution of coyotes following the development of the Great Plains may have inadvertently restricted the range of swift fox despite the availability of suitable habitats. With increasing interest in developing infrastructure in the shortgrass prairie for gas, oil and wind energy resources, there is a clear need to identify the mechanism limiting the distribution of grassland obligate species such as swift fox, and how anthropogenic change is likely to alter important ecological relationships.


The project goal is to understand how habitat structure, landscape attributes, and behavioral intraguild interactions, across multiple spatial and temporal scales, affect habitat use and geographic distribution of Nebraska’s canids species and how development may alter these relationships.

Current Status

From 2014 to 2016, we surveyed for canids across 26,000 square miles of western Nebraska using baited camera traps. With the help of 130 private landowners, we were able to deploy 2,300 camera trap sets, for nearly 28,000 trap nights resulting in over 5 million photos. We have used the camera trap data to develop predict models relating local and regional vegetation to the presence of various canid species.

Overall, our results reiterated the importance of native shortgrass prairies for swift fox, and show that increasing tree, row-crops, and developed areas within the landscape negatively impact swift fox. Our results suggest that swift fox populations in Nebraska are restricted to two subpopulations within its available habitat; there is little genetic structure or geographic isolation, but our findings draw attention to the potential for future reduction of genetic diversity due to swift fox small population size in light of increasingly diminished and fragmented suitable habitat.

Project Website
Nebraska Canid Project
Lucia preparing trail cameras. Photo: Adela Annis
Lucia preparing trail cameras. Photo: Adela Annis
Lucia and Lindsay Brown setting a camera trap station. Photo: Adela Annis
Lucia and Lindsay Brown setting a camera trap station. Photo: Adela Annis
Swift fox caught on a trail camera in western Nebraska. Photo: Adela Annis
Swift fox caught on a trail camera in western Nebraska. Photo: Adela Annis
Principal Investigator(s)
-Joseph Fontaine
-Teresa Frink

Graduate Student(s)
-Lucia Corral, Ph.D. (2018)

Project Duration
January 2013 - December 2018

-Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
-Nebraska Department of Roads

Project Location
Western Nebraska