The swift fox no longer occurs naturally in Canada, however attempts have been made to reintroduce the species to its former range. A number of factors contributed to the decline of the animal. Over 4000 pelts were taken annually between 1853 and 1877. Trapping continued into the 1920´s despite the low value of the swift fox´s fur, often due to the animal taking baits meant for larger red foxes. In another case of collateral damage to the swift fox, poisons used to exterminate ground squirrels often ended up killing the foxes as well. The elimination of wolves from the prairies allowed for an increase in coyote and red fox populations which put further pressure on the species. Finally, the cultivation of farmland reduced the suitability of the region as swift fox habitat. The numbers of the swift fox dropped rapidly both in Canada and the United States, however its U.S. population began to stabilize and then recover in the 1950´s. Speculation has been made that the milder winters and wetter summers in its southern range contributed to the survival of the animal in those regions. Nevertheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes the swift fox to be extirpated (extinct within a given region) from up to 90% of it´s former U.S. range with the remainder in small isolated pockets. The last known Canadian specimen was captured in 1928 and the last sighting was ten years later, however it was not until 1978 that the animal was officially declared extirpated from Canada.
The originating force in the drive to reestablish the swift fox in Canada came from the Wildlife Reserve of Western Canada (now the Cochrane Ecological Institute). It was established in 1975 by the private funds of Miles and Beryl Smeeton, who proposed a captive breeding program with the hopes of returning a viable population of the animal to Canada. They were joined in 1983 by the Canadian Wildlife Service, the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, the Calgary Zoo, the World Wildlife Fund, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, Agriculture Canada, and the provincial governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba in a multilateral program to achieve that goal.
The project, as described by J. David Henry, has been proven to be quite a learning experience in the field of species reintroduction. The first experimental release of swift foxes was conducted in 1983 in southern Alberta. A ´soft´ release method was used, in which the foxes were kept in pens in the area where they were supposed to be released in order to acclimatize them to their new home. This method proved to be too labor intensive without substantially increasing the survival rates of the animals. In 1987, it was decided to change to a ´hard´ release method, in which the animals would simply be let go in an appropriate area, with no acclimatization period. The theory behind this method is that more animals can be released in less time, hopefully enough to build a viable population. Much research has also been done to improve breeding facilities in order to provide captive raised swift foxes with as much ´real world´ experience as possible prior to release.
Another, more controversial approach to improve the mortality rates of released foxes includes the capturing of wild swift foxes from Colorado and Wyoming and re-releasing them in Canada. The theory is that wild foxes have more experience in living in a natural setting and will therefore have lower mortality rates than those raised in captivity. While Henry´s book claimed studies that have shown wild foxes are indeed four times more likely to survive their first year than the less experienced captive raised foxes, Clio Smeeton from the Cochrane Ecological Institute has informed me that this is not the case; a government of Saskatchewan survey conducted by Dr. Dale Hjertaas has placed the most optimistic survival rates at 37% for captive raised foxes as oppossed to 31% for translocated animals. The institue is also concerned that taking foxes from the U.S. will reduce the viability of those fragile populations through decreased numbers and the disruption of their social fabric, while increasing the risk of disease being introduced to the Canadian colonies. Canada is in fact now self-sufficient in producing swift foxes for the program, with the institute maintaining 32 breeding pairs capable of providing 100 new foxes annually, 3/4s of the cost of which is provided through donations from corporations, private individuals, and charitable foundations. Nevertheless the Canadian government has shown a preference for translocating American foxes over the breeding program, despite the absence of any evidence to prove the strategy has more merit.
The program has been successful in establishing a fragile population of swift foxes on the Canadian prairie. By 1992, 643 foxes had been released, including 136 soft releases and 507 hard releases. To date, 841 swift foxes have been bred for the program. Ms. Smeeton informed me of a 1996/97 government survey estimating there to be 289 foxes living in the Canadian release sites, and believes that the goal of 420 animals set by the Canadian Swift Fox Recovery Team can be met. There is obviously a lot of work that remains to be done in this endeavor, however the results have shown cause for cautious optimism regarding its eventual success. This story provides some rather interesting insight into the politics and techniques behind modern conservation efforts, but it also demonstrates how difficult it can be to undo damage to even a small part of the world´s ecosystem.
I would like to thank Clio Smeeton for providing the information with which I´ve updated this page. If you wish to learn more about this program or how you can help, please visit The Cochrane Ecological Institute´s Website.
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