An ongoing study of the Sierra Nevada fed fox (SNRF) has confirmed their presence in the Oregon Cascades, specifically in the Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington, and Three Sisters Wilderness Areas. Additional samples from this ongoing study are being collected in the original study area and also throughout the Oregon Cascades including Mt. Hood National Forest and Crater Lake National Park.
Due to the finding, this fox has been added as a Strategy Species in the 2015 draft update of the Oregon Conservation Strategy. Strategy Species include those with small, declining or unknown population levels that could be at risk and may be in need of conservation. The USFWS did find that a small population of the fox north of Yosemite National Park is warranted-but-precluded from ESA listing by higher current priorities.
The study started as part of a forest carnivore survey by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Working with the U.S. Forest Service, researchers set up bait, hair snares and cameras in a study from 2012 to 2014.
Remote cameras captured images of the presumably rare fox which was originally thought to be the Cascades red fox that exists in Washington. Oregon also has the Rocky Mountain red fox in the northeastern part of the state and non-native lowland red foxes in much of the state. More than 700 photographs of Sierra Nevada red fox were taken over the two-year project, and they were found at 11 of 41 bait stations throughout the Cascades study area.
“Our cameras detected red foxes at high elevations throughout the study area, which occasionally included areas with high human activity such as ski resorts,” said Jamie McFadden-Hiller who led the field work. Tim Hiller, now with Mississippi State University, who leads the overall project that he started when he was a researcher with ODFW, said hair and scat samples from the 2012 to 2014 study were analyzed at the UC Davis laboratory and the project is moving into the next phase to collect more data.
After the initial bait and camera project ended in June 2014, Hiller, McFadden-Hiller, and Ben Sacks met with and trained biologists and seasonal employees with the U.S. Forest Service, Crater Lake National Park and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to collect scat and other samples. Hiller partnered with Sacks, an Associate Adjunct Professor in the Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Unit at UC Davis because of his expertise with canid genetics, specifically red foxes.
Preliminary DNA analysis of hair samples suggests the foxes are the native Sierra Nevada subspecies of red fox. Researchers are confident additional testing will answer more questions about these montane (mountain) red foxes, such as assessing their population connectivity and whether hybridization with non-native lowland red foxes may be a conservation concern.
Hiller hopes the research will more clearly define factors influencing the population in Oregon.
Sierra Nevada red fox are slightly smaller than the common lowland subspecies of red fox and have darker fur. Most of their habitat is thought to occur at high elevation pine and spruce forests within National Forests, often in wilderness areas or National Parks. This subspecies is highly specialized to montane ecosystems, areas that may be impacted by climate change and other factors.
Funding from both the initial bait and camera project and current DNA analysis comes from the Pittman-Robertson Act and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Many other organizations also provided support for the field research, including the U.S. Forest Service.