Threatened red fox pops up near Yosemite, stunning scientists

Sleek and tough, the Sierra Nevada red fox, once thought to have disappeared from the mountain range that bears its name, has been spotted near the eastern borders of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

The discovery by scientists at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife gives them hope that the small carnivore’s population may be expanding, or at least covering a broader range than previously thought, increasing the fox’s chances of survival.

“It’s really exciting to find that not only are they still here, but they’re in a lot more places than we originally thought,” said Julia Lawson, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The state agency spotted the creatures four times with three survey cameras near Taboose Pass, east of the John Muir Trail, between 11,400 and 12,000 feet elevation. The sightings took place between April and June last year and extended the animals’ known range by more than 100 miles south.

At 8 pounds, the fox is not much larger than a house cat. Its exceptional hearing allows it to find small rodents even when the prey is covered by a layer of snow. The fox’s fur ranges in color from red to granite, with fluffy fur once prized by trappers who sold the pelts to be fashioned into coats and stoles.

Hunting and capturing of the creatures decimated the population so much that for much of the 20th century scientists and conservationists believed the species had been extirpated from the Sierra.

Trapping was banned in 1974, and the fox was listed as threatened in California in 1980. In 2021, the federal government listed the Sierra Nevada population as vulnerable. (A distinct population of foxes in the Cascades continued.)

The discovery of a small population of foxes at Sonora Pass in 2010 alerted conservationists that the creatures could still gain a foothold in the Sierra at the north end of Yosemite National Park.

Since then, researchers have been working to better understand where the foxes live, hoping to devise a conservation plan to increase their chances of survival.

In 2018, remote-controlled cameras spotted foxes at six locations within the Mono Creek watershed southeast of the town of Mammoth Lakes. Researchers collected fecal samples that indicated the presence of two females and one male. Samples also helped determine that the male had traveled more than 70 miles south of Sonora Pass into the Mono Creek area.

The California Wildlife Service collaborated on the study with the UC Davis Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Unit, the California Department of Water Resources, Southern California Edison, and officials at several national parks and national forests.

“These new discoveries are very personally gratifying and a real reward for all the hard work our collaborators have put in,” said Brian Hatfield, fish and wildlife biologist and lead author of the research. “From a conservation perspective, this shows that the Sierra Nevada red fox is more widespread than previously thought.”

Lawson said that wider distribution “means they’re more resilient to a disaster or disease — something that could wipe out a population in one place.” With populations scattered across the mountain range, you have a better chance of the species surviving.” Threatened red fox pops up near Yosemite, stunning scientists

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