Threatened California Fox Species Found in Oregon
By Carolyn Jones
Scientists have discovered two new colonies of an elusive high-mountain fox that until recently was thought to be nearly extinct, an environmental group announced Tuesday.
Using motion-sensor nighttime cameras, researchers captured photographs of the Sierra Nevada red fox - for decades believed to exist only in California - near Mount Hood and Crater Lake in Oregon.
Biologists are now gathering DNA from the newly discovered foxes in hopes of learning why their numbers have declined so precipitously.
"It's very, very good news," said UC Davis professor Ben Sacks, who studies canid conservation. "Now we need to find out how many."
Sierra Nevada red foxes are smaller and furrier than other fox subspecies, and they live in the harsh tundra and snow-covered forests above 6,000 feet.
They once roamed from the southern Sierra Nevada to the Columbia River along the Oregon-Washington border, but their numbers have dropped steadily over the past 120 years due to trapping, livestock grazing and, now, climate change, said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaign director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
In 1980, the fox was listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. McKinnon's group is petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the fox as endangered.
"Research into these animals is critical for their survival," he said. "If we can find out more about them, we can learn why they're declining and how we can best protect them."
Until fall 2010, scientists believed only 20 or so Sierra Nevada red foxes remained, living near Mount Lassen. Then, near Sonora Pass, researchers using motion-sensor cameras caught photos of the shy canine nipping on chicken scraps intended for other animals.
Not long after, anecdotal sightings of red foxes near Crater Lake prompted a park ranger to search for them in that area. He eventually found one and captured it on film.
Meanwhile, a ski slope groomer at Mount Hood spotted a red fox in March 2011, took a snapshot with his flip phone and sent it to a friend who's studying the species at UC Davis.
That photo spurred scientists to set out cameras in the area, eventually confirming the sighting with higher-quality photos.
Gray and red foxes abound in California, but the Sierra Nevada red fox is the only one that lives in the often frozen higher elevations. To adapt, it has wide, fur-covered feet, like insulated snowshoes, and a thick coat.
No one's sure why the fox has become so rare. Some scientists think it's always had low numbers, while others think it's suffered greatly from human activity.
One theory is that livestock grazing has diminished grass and shrubs that provide food for rodents, a dietary staple for foxes. In addition, ranchers sometimes poison rodents to prevent them from burrowing in the grazing pasture, in turn sickening the foxes.
Climate change might also have an impact, McKinnon said. As snow levels recede, the foxes' habitat shrinks.
"These foxes are among the most imperiled mammals in North America," McKinnon said. "The more we can find out about them, the greater their chances of survival."
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This article originally appeared here.
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