Scientists on the lookout for 'lost fox' in Oregon Cascades

March 10, 2016 - 2:03pm

Undocumented in state until recently, Sierra Nevada red fox is showing up on camera

Biologists are on a quest to find Oregon's lost fox.

Only one native subspecies of mountain-dwelling fox roams Oregon's Cascades, and until recently it was assumed to be the Cascades red fox — the same montane subspecies found across the Columbia River in Washington.

"We have no clue how many of them there really are or where they occur."

—Keith Aubry, U.S. Forest Service

Genetic evidence has corrected that assumption though, and we now know this fox to be the Sierra Nevada subspecies — at times considered one of the rarest animals in all of North America.

It wasn't until late 2012 — when camera traps caught glimpses of these small-bodied foxes with black-socked feet in Willamette National Forest — that local biologists began to wonder: Is the Sierra Nevada red fox really on the brink of extinction or is it just too elusive to see?

"Once you start looking, you might be surprised where you find them," said Tim Hiller, executive director of the Wildlife Ecology Institute, who helped capture those initial images in a project made possible by the Oregon Zoo Foundation's Future for Wildlife program along with state and federal agencies.

Dr. Hiller initially sought to know whether wolverines currently existed in Oregon's northern Cascades. Although he ended up seeing no wolverines, a lot of data was collected on foxes and other native carnivores. Now, with another Future for Wildlife grant, researchers at the High Desert Museum in Bend are focusing specifically on the Sierra Nevada red fox to help with this ongoing research.

So far, the High Desert Museum project has documented these red foxes visiting four out of 16 camera traps scattered throughout the Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon, says Jon Nelson, wildlife curator and monitoring coordinator with the museum.

In addition to the photographic evidence, Nelson has been gathering hair and scat samples to help determine the number of individual foxes out there.

"We know one site is certainly home to a breeding pair with a cub," he said.

Sierra Nevada foxes clearly have a presence in Oregon, but it's hard to know how well the population is faring.

"They're incredibly cryptic animals," said U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Keith Aubry, who was the first person to conduct a field study on montane red foxes in 1979 and says he's only ever seen one in the wild. "We have no clue how many of them there really are or where they occur. There are no population estimates in Oregon at this time."

This makes Oregon's current monitoring project essential, Aubry says. David Shepherdson, deputy conservation manager with the Oregon Zoo, agrees.

"Understanding which carnivore species are using the Central Cascades is profoundly important to making decisions about how we manage the land," Dr. Shepherdson said. "When we provide healthy habitat for carnivores, many other species benefit."

Now that we know this "lost fox" is here, biologists say, we've got to figure out how we can help ensure their future survival — especially in the face of threats like the shifting climate, which is expected to allow coyotes, the fox's main competitor and perhaps main predator, to expand their range to higher mountain elevations.