Once considered extinct in Alberta, the swift fox (Vulpes velox) has returned to Alberta, with a "small but stable" population thriving in the grasslands of the Canadian province.

These foxes, not much bigger than house cats, were nowhere to be found in this area south of Medicine Hat in 2010, when the Nature Conservancy purchased it. The new sightings indicate that conservation efforts that started in the 1980s have proven worthwhile.

"This is a species that was once wiped out in Alberta, so the fact that we're starting to see them again is a really great conservation success story," Carys Richards, communication coordinator for Nature Conservancy of Canada, told the Calgary Herald.

Swift fox, slow recovery

A male swift fox mads through the Alberta grasslands The swift fox once had a sizable range in short-grass prairies. (Photo: Layne van Rhijn)

The swift fox was once common across the Midwestern U.S. and into Canada, with a historic range stretching across the two countries. Alberta and Texas were the end points.

The foxes faced a number of threats that drove them to either outright extinction or endangered status in certain areas. Favoring short grass and mixed-grass prairies, swift foxes lost habitat due to agricultural, industrial and residential development over the decades, according to the University of Michigan's Animal Diversity Web. Not helping matters were efforts to eradicate wolves and coyotes from their habitats; those predator control programs often swept up swift foxes by mistake. Indeed, by the 1930s, the swift fox was considered completely wiped out in Canada.

The protected status of the swift fox varies between Canada and the U.S., and even among states in the U.S. Within Canada, the swift fox is listed as endangered and as a result cannot be hunted. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the swift fox warranted being listed as threatened, but the species was never granted the designation due to other species being a higher priority.

A swift fox vixen looks out over the grasslands A swift vixen looks out over the grasslands of Alberta, taking in its new habitat. (Photo: Layne van Rhijn on Instagram)

As a result, certain states took actions to protect the fox within their respective borders. According to the IUCN, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota and Oklahoma all list swift foxes as furbearers, or animals whose fur is commercially valuable, but the harvesting season for swift foxes is closed all year. Nebraska lists the swift fox as endangered while South Dakota lists the animal as threatened. State wildlife agencies, along with the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division, formed the Swift Fox Conservation Team in an effort to monitor the species' population across its historic range.

Captive breeding programs helped to reintroduce the swift fox to Canada in 1983, with almost 950 foxes released into Alberta and neighboring Saskatchewan by 1997. Today, the foxes that call the area near Medicine Hat home have a "very small but stable population" of 100 individuals, according to Richards.

"I think the fact that they've decided to move onto this land means we've done a really good job of keeping it as natural as possible and providing amazing habitat," she told the Herald. "This property is a success so now we want to keep expanding on this."

A male swift fox licks its snout in the Alberta grassland Swift foxes are opportunistic omnivores, eating rabbits, insects and lizards. (Photo: Layne van Rhijn on Facebook)

The Nature Conservancy Canada is keeping the location of the property under wraps so humans won't disturb the foxes.

The return of the swift fox is another success for the conservancy's land protection efforts, which help more than just swift foxes.

"Southern Alberta is home to over 75 percent of Alberta's species at risk and this is because of the decline in our grasslands," Megan Jensen, the conservancy's natural area manager for southeast Alberta, told the Herald. "It's really important to know that our grasslands are important and (swift foxes) are one of the animals that live in our grasslands."

Swift foxes making a comeback in Canada
Swift foxes were once considered extinct in Canada, but they're making a comeback in the grasslands of Alberta.