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Fox News: Rare species pops up out of nowhere

October 15, 2010

The Sierra Nevada red fox. Illustration by John Muir Laws.

When a Sierra Nevada red fox slipped out of the high country forest near Sonora Pass, it didn’t know its kind hadn’t been positively identified in the Sierra for at least 20 years.

It didn’t know that its closest relative— the same species but a genetically different population — of a few dozen red foxes in Lassen National Park, already one thread away from final, was the last known group of foxes in the Sierra, down from a species that had once covered most of the Sierra high country.

And when it tripped a biologist camera that day a few weeks ago, it also didn’t know it had walked out of obscurity and literally right into the middle of two prospective snowmobile crossings of the Pacific Crest Trail near Sonora Pass: crossings that had taken years of negotiations and compromise on all sides to pin down.

Instead, it was doing that thing that little Sierra Nevada red foxes have done for eons in the Sierra; hunting for gophers or jackrabbits, headed for whatever hidden place it calls home.

When another fox of the same genetic imprint was found close by and shortly thereafter, the stage was set for one of those classic Sierra
conundrums.

“We are going to push for more funding to study this fox,” said UC Davis Veterinary Genetics Lab director Dr. Ben Sacks, who positively identified the fox as one of the rare predators.

“Until we do that, we don’t know if things like snowmobile use could affect the foxes or not, but I do have some concerns, based on previous work we have done.”

Coyotes are the main predators for the foxes and because coyotes are heavier than foxes and sink through the snow more easily, snowmobile and cross country ski tracks can give coyotes an advantage, he said.

“If anything, it heightens our awareness. But we need more information to change what we are doing at this time,” said Bridgeport’s new forest servic district ranger, Mike Crawley. Crawley must make the final decision about where to locate a snowmobile crossing corridor across S.R. 108 and the PCT that will link the newly created Bridgeport Winter Recreation Area to legal snowmobile access from S.R. 108.

“We are intending to have a decision out about the crossings before this winter.”

“I am certainly worried that this might affect the forest service’s willingness to make the right decision,” said Bridgeport’s county supervisor, Bob Peters, an advocate for the winter recreation area that he hopes will increase tourism dollars coming into his struggling community.

“All it takes is for one species to show up like this, and the Center for Biological Diversity slams the feds with a petition for listing (as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act),” he said.
“And I know lots of people that have seen them out there,” he said.

He might be right. Even here in Mammoth, a reliable source, a biologist, saw what she thought was a Sierra Nevada red fox in the 1980’s in the Valentine Reserve, reserve director Dan Dawson told the Mammoth Times this week.

But that doesn’t mean the Sierra is brimming in red foxes, either.

“It looks like it might be an excellent candidate for listing.” said CBD senior attorney Lisa Belenky.
“We’re considering it.”

“It’s in the hands of the California Department of Fish and Game,” said Catrina Martin, a field biologist coordinator with the agency that must eventually decide if a species gets protected under the ESA.
“Unless there is an emergency, they are the lead on this.”

And so it goes. Most likely, it’s how it will continue to go for some time too; human players of all different stripes jostling amidst themselves, all seeking an outcome of their own.

But what about the fox?

Lost in all the human hubbub is the Sierra red fox itself.

Although elated to finally get a positive identification on a species he said he has long believed to still be in the Sierra, Dr. Sacks said so far, his pleas for funding more studies of the fox aren’t getting very far.

“The biologists are excited, but the people that hold the purse strings not so much,” he said.

That’s bad news, given the current lack of scientific information on the fox, he said.

But what he does know is that the fox is one of the Sierra’s last “meso predators”, along with the wolverine and pine marten. Today, only the pine marten remains, and not in any great numbers.

Are these predators critical to the health of the Sierra? Is their loss going to hurt the Sierra?

That’s where the answers get nebulous.

It’s not that losing the fox forever will necessarily affect humans in any literal way, he said, although no one knows that for sure.

They’ve been slowly sinking out of site for generations and the sky is not falling because of it.
But is it worth fighting for anyway?

“Of course,” he said.

“Losing another of these predators is losing another part of our natural heritage.”

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