By Bruce Auchly - FWP Region 4 Information Officer
An acquaintance the other week asked if Montana has raccoons.
Well of course we do. How silly is that.
Then again, maybe that’s not such a silly question. Depending on your age, a native Montanan could have grown up without ever seeing some animals common today, like the raccoon and red fox.
Raccoons are Montana residents, probably native, and found nowadays everywhere in the state. However, they are nocturnal, meaning they man the graveyard shift while the rest of us sleep.
We can cross paths with this masked mammal if we are out late, or early, or in the morning when we survey the damage: garbage strewn about, droppings on decks and picnic coolers overturned or broken.
And while they are everywhere now from prairies to river bottoms to towns that wasn’t always the case.
Although raccoons probably were 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 journals report a raccoon in Missouri, then not until the Columbia River.
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 “The Wild Mammals of Montana,” by Kerry Foresman, raccoons moved from Idaho into the Bitterroot Valley in the 1940s, then the Flathead Valley and finally central Montana via the Missouri River in the 1950s and 1960s.
Raccoons flourish around humans. We provide shelter through old buildings, abandoned cars and the accoutrements of civilization along with all sorts of nourishment: pet food, garbage, even commercial crops.
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 being in north central Montana would have fit the area last inhabited by raccoons and the last hold out against the red fox.
Like the raccoon, the red fox is now found from Alaska and all the Canadian provinces south through the lower 48 states in the continental U.S.
In Montana, this small member of the canine family probably spread from east and west to the center. Foresman’s book says as late as 1969 there was no evidence of its existence 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.
The red fox benefited from human changes to the landscape, such as old fields near housing developments or golf courses, according to Foresman.
Also, the occasional war humans waged on coyotes may have had a positive effect on red fox. That’s because when the two species occur in the same area, the coyote will harass and even prey on the smaller red fox.
In fact the wildlife wars that eliminated or greatly reduced the wolf, coyote and the swift fox opened habitat for generalists like raccoons and red fox.
So next time you see a red fox near the chicken coop or a raccoon in your garbage count yourself lucky.