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The Sierra red fox's tell-tale-tail

June 15, 2012

One of the first Sierra Nevada red foxes positively identified since the 1930s (other than a tiny population near Lassen National Park) checks out a bait trap near Sonora Pass.

Considering the grand tapestry of life here on this blue-green Earth, the fate of one little animal species might not seem like that big of a deal.

After all, species go extinct every day.

But think of it from the human point of view.

How would you feel if you were a species on the very brink of extinction—only 20 or so remaining individuals in one tiny band in one place in the world— and you suddenly found you were not alone, that there were more of you out there?

Ecstatic, maybe?

That’s how it is for the biologist who first spotted the rarest fox species in the country a few years ago near Sonora Pass. And that’s how it has remained— even when Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist Sherri Lisius found herself diving through a Forest Service dumpster after a long-discarded stinky bait sock that just might still hold DNA evidence of the fox’s unexpected visit.

She had put up the cameras as part of her job with the federal government, trying to see what kind of animals might be around a Congressionally mandated snowmobile crossing of the Pacific Crest Trail at the top of Sonora Pass.

The idea was to be sure the crossing would not have a negative impact on the animals in the area and Lisius and her crew thought they might find some marmots, maybe a pine marten or two, a grey fox, some coyotes and bears. That would be exciting enough to a wildlife biologist with a deep love of the Sierra high country.

But no one every expected the rarest fox species in the entire country—a little, red-furred, black-footed, pointy-nosed Sierra Nevada red fox thought almost extinct—to trip the cameras.

“When we got the film back, we could not believe what we were seeing,” she told a group of people Tuesday night, all gathered for the last of the Green Church lectures at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) facility on the Benton Crossing Road.

“We kept looking at the photos, which were all overexposed so it was hard to see what was going on and finally, we saw one that showed the tip of the tail. No other animal except a red fox has a white tip on its tale. That fox did us a big favor when it showed its tail.”

It’s unlike anything else in the world, she said, to find a species long thought almost gone forever—even if it comes with digging up a stinky, rotting, chicken-filled sock from the dumpster and mailing it overnight to UC Davis for DNA testing.

“I felt sorry for the FedEx man,” she said with a laugh. “We had also covered the sock with skunk bait when we put it out there and it was really, really stinky. It was pretty bad.”

But the results came back positive for the rarest red fox species in the country and Lisius’s quiet world jumped into overdrive.

“It was like wildlife CSI,” she said. “You never get results back in 24 hours in the real world, but in this case, they made an exception.”

Since that day in 2010, the state Fish and Game, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and UC Davis have all jumped on the Sierra Nevada red fox bandwagon, trying to find if Lisius and her fellow wildlife biologist Adam Rich’s (Rich was working on the west side of the pass, for a different forest, but the two did the camera and scientific work together) finding was a fluke or indicative of a real, viable red fox population in the Sierra again.

So far, so good, she said.

“They have had at least nine sightings and there have been over 5,000 nights that biologists have put in trying to photograph or get hair samples from the fox,” she said. The nine sightings have all been close to the Sonora Pass area where the fox was first photographed, but cameras have been deployed all up and down the Sierra in places that wildlife specialists think the fox might prefer.

Those nine sightings might not sound like much, but three years ago, it was thought the only Sierra Nevada red foxes left in the world were the 20 or so in a small band in Lassen National Park.

Male and female foxes have been seen, suggesting there are breeding pairs, but even with the recent findings, Lisius stressed how much is still not known about the elusive fox species and how fragile the species is.

“We still don’t know much about this fox,” she said. “We still haven’t found any dens, or pups.”
Soon after the discovery was made public, an environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, pressured the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to list the fox as threatened and/or endangered.
The service has since said listing “may be warranted” and has put the fox on a fast track for study and analysis.

That means the spotlight on the fox will go nowhere for a while and Lisius, who is no longer working for the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest like she was when she first found the fox, is glad.

“This is an animal that was already rare in the 1930s due to a past history of trapping and habitat loss,” she said. “Since that time, even more development has occurred. No matter what, even with this discovery, the fox isn’t plentiful so we have to treat this as a very rare and precious animal and manage it accordingly.”

For more info Google “ Sierra Nevada Red Fox Survey” or go to www.dfg.ca.gov/regions/1/redfoxsurvey

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