For the first time in almost 100 years, Yosemite National Park has been able to announce the confirmed sighting of one of North America’s rarest mammals: the Sierra Nevada red fox. Understandably, park officials are over the moon about the observation.
“We are thrilled to hear about the sighting of the Sierra Nevada red fox, one of the most rare and elusive animals in the Sierra Nevada,” Don Neubacher, park superintendent said in a statement. “National parks like Yosemite provide habitat for all wildlife and it is encouraging to see that the red fox was sighted at the park.”
The animal was spotted on two separate occasions, first on December 13, 2014, then again on January 4, thanks to motion-sensitive cameras deployed in the far northern corner of the park. These are the first verified sightings of the Sierra Nevada red fox within the park boundaries since 1916, when two animals were killed for a museum.
The Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) is one of ten red fox subspecies residing in North America, and one of three subspecies of “mountain red fox.” Little is known about the current distribution and population size of these animals, although it’s believed that there are less than 50 individuals remaining in the wild. It is for this reason that it is considered critically endangered by the California Department of Fish and Game, and it should be announced later this year whether it will become protected by the Endangered Species Act.
The majority of recent sightings have been in the Lassen Peak region, leading conservationists to wonder whether the subspecies persisted outside of this area. Although there have been ten reported sightings in Yosemite National Park since 1977, it has been impossible to confirm whether the animals were indeed Sierra Nevada red foxes because no photographs or voucher specimens were available, meaning it could have been a different animal with a similar appearance, such as a gray fox.
It’s unclear why the population of this subspecies has suffered so much, although a few different ideas have been put forward. The animals were trapped and hunted for their fur, although this probably didn’t significantly deplete the population given the low numbers taken annually. One popular idea is that other human activities may be to blame, such as livestock overgrazing the land they inhabit, reducing the availability of their prey. It’s also possible that they were outcompeted by other animals, such as coyotes, or suffered because of inbreeding.
Now that a sighting has been confirmed in the park, members of the Yosemite carnivore crew will continue to survey for the animal using deployed cameras. They have also set up devices to capture hair samples from passing animals so that genetic analyses can be performed. If any hairs can be obtained from the Sierra Nevada red fox, scientists might be able to learn more about the diversity of the population.