Swift Foxes in Alberta: If You Conserve it, They Will Come

Nature Conservancy of Canada

A den of swift foxes, a species once extinct in Canada, was discovered on a Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) conservation site in southeast Alberta in July.

The discovery of this den is proof that the work that conservation organizations like NCC is doing to secure and steward privately owned land is helping species at risk — in this case, providing a home for a rare and reintroduced species.

The return of swift foxes to Canada is one of the most successful species reintroduction stories. The swift fox was once abundant in the short- and mixed-grass prairies of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but in the 1930s they were declared extirpated (locally extinct) in Canada. Their decline was attributed primarily to the growth of large-scale agriculture and the resulting loss of habitat.

In 1973, a privately run program in Canada began captive breeding swift foxes from the United States so that they could eventually be reintroduced back into the wild. With the help of federal agencies, non-governmental organizations and academia, including the Cochrane Research Institute and the Calgary Zoo Conservation Research Centre, the program was a success. The first captive-raised swift foxes were reintroduced along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border and the Milk River Ridge areas in 1983.

These foxes survived, and over the years more captive-bred animals were reintroduced back into the wild. Between 1983 and 1997, more than 900 animals were released in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Today, it is estimated that there is a small, relatively stable population of about 100 wild swift foxes in Alberta. Most are offspring of the released animals. This population is classified as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, as their small population is still very vulnerable.

Because swift foxes spend more time underground than any other species of dog, their dens are very important to their survival. Swift foxes use their dens year-round for protection against predators and as a place to raise their young.

Taking care of our natural spaces has never been more important than it is today. The Canadian prairies are the world’s most endangered ecosystem. More than half of the planet’s temperate grasslands have been converted to crops and other land uses. The protection of these grasslands is critical to the survival of the species that depend on them, including swift foxes. By working together with local communities, other land trust organizations and private landowners, NCC will continue to conserve and steward these lands to ensure animals like the swift fox still have wild places to live.