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New Kids on the Block

New Kids on the Block

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors March–April 2013 issue

An acquaintance the other week asked if Montana has raccoons.

Well of course we do. What a silly question.

Then again, maybe it isn’t. Depending on your age, you might have grown up in Montana without ever seeing some animals common today, like the raccoon and red fox.

Raccoons are Montana residents found just about everywhere in the state. They are nocturnal, meaning they work the graveyard shift while the rest of us sleep. We usually cross paths with this masked mammal only if we are out very late or up very early—or in the morning when we survey the damage from the night before: garbage strewn about, droppings on decks, and picnic coolers overturned or broken.

And while they now live nearly everywhere in Montana, from prairies to river bottoms to towns, that wasn’t always true.

Although raccoons probably occurred in eastern Montana along the Yellowstone River at the time of Lewis and Clark, the expedition journals do not mention the species in Montana. The Corps of Discovery reported a raccoon in Missouri, then not again until the Columbia River in present-day Oregon. In the winter of 1806, from the shores of the Pacific Ocean, Meriwether Lewis wrote: “The raccoon is found...on this coast in considerable quantities.”

According to Kerry Foresman, biology professor at the University of Montana and author of Mammals of Montana, raccoons moved from Idaho into the Bitterroot Valley in the 1940s, then to the Flathead Valley, and finally to central Montana via the Missouri River in the 1950s and ’60s. They likely were also moving west along the Yellowstone River and its drainages during that same time.

Raccoons flourish around humans. We create shelter in old buildings, abandoned cars, and other accoutrements of civilization. We also provide all sorts of nourishment: pet food, garbage, even commercial crops. Raccoons love corn.

An elderly friend who grew up near Havre during the Depression once commented that she never saw a raccoon or red fox during her childhood. Havre, located in north-central Montana, would have been among the final areas inhabited by raccoons and one of the last holdouts against the red fox.

Like raccoons, red foxes are now found from Alaska and all the Canadian provinces south through the lower 48 states.

In Montana, this small member of the canine family probably spread from east and west to the center. Foresman says that as late as 1969, no evidence of red foxes existed in a line running from Liberty and Hill Counties on the Hi-Line southeast through Big Horn County. By the mid-1990s, however, trapping records indicate the animal was being taken in central Montana.

Like the raccoon, the red fox has benefited from human changes to the landscape. Most important, says Foresman, is the war humans wage on coyotes, a natural enemy of the red fox. This has provided abundant places for the smaller canid to thrive.

As proved again and again, nature hates a vacuum. Efforts to reduce wolf, coyote, and swift fox numbers have opened the habitat door for generalists like the raccoon and red fox.Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly manages the regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls.