Rare swift fox killed on TCH

By: Cathy Ellis

  |  Posted: Thursday, Jun 07, 2012 06:00 am

A rare swift fox found dead in Banff National Park.
A rare swift fox found dead in Banff National Park.
Dan Rafla/Parks Canada

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The first ever recorded swift fox in Banff National Park is suspected to have traveled an incredible 400 kilometres to get here, only to be run over and killed on the Trans-Canada Highway.

Parks Canada is trying to unravel the mystery of where the tiny swift fox came from, and one theory is it may have travelled from south-eastern Alberta or perhaps even Montana, where the rare animals have been re-introduced.

The endangered swift fox is dependent on native short and medium mixed grass prairie for its survival, but officials say trapping records and First Nation history suggest the species was much wider ranging in the past.

“If it’s travelled all that way, that’s a remarkable movement for such a tiny little animal, but unfortunately it got hit on the highway,” said Karsten Heuer, a resource conservation specialist for Banff National Park.

“Everyone was blown away that we had a swift fox in Banff National Park, totally in awe of the distance this animal the size of a house cat had probably travelled and all it would have gone through to get here.”

The swift fox can run up to 50 km/h, was extirpated from Alberta in the 1970s, but there have a been a series of reintroduction programs, including in the south-east of the province.

The swift fox, like bison, prairie wolf and plains grizzly, fell victim to loss of habitat as native prairie rapidly disappeared due to human settlement at the turn of the last century.

Trapping, and a boom in their main predator, the coyote, as well as becoming accidental victims to poisoning campaigns aimed at coyotes and wolves, also took their toll.

According to Alberta’s recovery plan, there are now an estimated 1,100 swift foxes in the prairies, primarily concentrated around the United States-Canada border south of Medicine Hat.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) – a scientific advisory board – changed its listing from extirpated to endangered in 1998.

When Parks Canada’s highway crews initially picked up the carcass in late March near Seven Mile Hill east of Banff, it was thought it could be a coyote pup or a red fox, but wildlife officials quickly realized that wasn’t the case.

Pouring through field guides and researching on the Internet led wildlife officials to discover it was indeed a swift fox, due to the black tip on its tail and its very narrow muzzle.

Heuer said he contacted the Cochrane Ecological Institute – an organization that began captive breeding swift foxes in 1973 to reintroduce them into the wild – to find out if perhaps a swift fox had escaped.

“I checked with them and none had escaped, but I sent them some pictures and they confirmed it was definitely a swift fox,” he said.

Since 1973, the Cochrane Ecological Institute has been joined by the Swift Fox Conservation Society, government agencies and concerned individuals in an effort to restore the foxes.

As well as reintroductions into southwest Alberta, Heuer said another reintroduction also occurred on the Blood Nation reserve in Montana, U.S., just east of Glacier National Park.

Heuer said it’s possible the swift fox may have come from either of those areas.

“Imagine an animal the size of a house cat travelling hundreds of kilometres, going across roads, rails, coyote range and rivers and ending up in Banff National Park. It’s incredible,” he said.

“It’s so inspiring to see this incredibly small animal that is so resourceful and persistent following what nature has programmed into its tiny little brain; to go afield, look for new territory and occupy it.”

Heuer said he was told there were also some swift foxes released near Jumping Pound Creek west of Cochrane in the 1980s – but no one has seen them since.

“Part of what’s in the back of my mind is could a few have survived and could this one now be showing up from this population?” he said. “It would be pretty wild if this is the first one in 30 years to show up.”

The swift fox carcass has been sent to Calgary Zoo and is awaiting DNA analysis. The foxes that were bred and reintroduced into the wild had hair samples taken so it’s hoped they can pinpoint where this fox came from.

“Where did he come from? What was his relationship to the hundreds of captive-bred foxes released into the wild?” asked Heuer. “Through the wonders of genetic mapping, hopefully we will know more soon.”

The distinguishing features of the swift fox are black patches on either side of the snout and a black tip on its tail. The swift fox is one of the smaller members of the dog family, averaging about 2.5 kgs. A red fox is nearly twice that and a coyote is nearly four times the weight of a swift fox


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