Don't feed the Cascade red foxes

Tacoma News TribuneAugust 5, 2011 

Like a bored and lonely latchkey kid, the Cascade red fox kit stared blankly across the parking lot toward the snow-covered Tatoosh range at Mount Rainier National Park.

Then the young fox laid its head on the curb near its den and dozed off while awaiting the return of its mother. After a yawn and a good stretch the fox walked across the parking lot and picked up a discarded candy wrapper.

A car rounded the corner on the Paradise Valley road and slowed abruptly. The window opened and a visitor began taking pictures. Soon another car stopped, then another, until the impromptu photo safari blocked the roadway.

Ignoring the fuss, the kit walked to the other side of the road, climbed over a snow bank and grabbed a prized toy – a dismembered marmot’s paw.

Mason Reid watched the fox’s nonchalant trot with a pained expression.

“The foxes tend to avoid humans and are fairly secretive,” said Reid, a wildlife ecologist with the park. “But habituated foxes that associate cars with food will just sit there like a dog at the dinner table waiting for a handout.” That loss of fear can lead to trouble.

“The foxes tend to avoid humans and are fairly secretive,” said Reid, a wildlife ecologist with the park. “But habituated foxes that associate cars with food will just sit there like a dog at the dinner table waiting for a handout.” That loss of fear can lead to trouble.

Park staff members are finding dens built next to busy roads and parking lots near Paradise. That allows fox families easy access to visitors and their food scraps, but it also puts the animals at risk.

Four of the rare Cascade red foxes have been stuck by vehicles and killed in the past five years, Reid said. Another was hit earlier this year but was not fatally injured.

One female that was struck but initially survived was nicknamed Pickles because she was spotted eating a pickle. A park staff member had to shoot the fox while it slept after its injured front leg became gangrenous.

PROTECTING THE FOXES

Reid and others at the park are taking interactions between humans and wildlife more seriously than ever because of recent scientific revelations and genetic analysis concerning the park’s Cascade red foxes.

The findings indicate the animals are a unique subspecies of montane red foxes found only in Washington state in the Alpine and sub-Alpine zones of Mount Rainier and Mount Adams.

Adding to the urgency is a lack of knowledge of the animals’ distribution and population, as well as the potential threat climate change might pose to their habitat.

No one’s ever been able to count the foxes. Estimates of their number in the past were based on the number of pelts brought in by trappers.

Keith Aubry has been studying Cascade red foxes and other high-elevation carnivores for more than 30 years.

“Small, isolated populations like the Cascade red fox are generally at greater risk of extinction than those that are well distributed or well connected to other populations,” said Aubry, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest research station in Olympia.

“New research efforts designed to fill information gaps are urgently needed.”

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife last year added the Cascade red fox to 113 species being considered for listing as endangered, threatened or sensitive.

Still, the fox’s status has been overlooked, said Derek Stinson, a biologist with the department.

“It’s a very rare species that kind of fell through the cracks at WDFW,” he said. “There is a case to be made (for protecting the Cascade red fox) but it’s difficult to say because of a lack of data.”

In April, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to have the Sierra Nevada red fox protected under the federal Endangered Species Act because only two populations of 50 or fewer foxes remain.

Because the Cascade red foxes live in a national park, it’s illegal to feed, trap or kill them.

Placing the foxes on the endangered species list, Stinson said, would increase fines, make it easier to get money to study the animals and bring higher scrutiny of potential effects from human interactions.

Protected status for the Cascade red fox will depend in part on politics amid tight budgets.

“When priorities are set, much of our budget goes to species already listed,” said Stinson, adding that “often candidate species that are not immediately threatened sit on the list for a long time.”

FEAR THE BIG, BLUE SQUIRT GUN

At Mount Rainier, ranger Jordan Mammel sees the threats to the foxes every day and is part of a stepped-up educational and law enforcement campaign to keep wild foxes wild.

“These guys have gotten so many human rewards,” Mammel said, “that they make the association: People plus cars equal food.”

Most visitors feed the foxes not out of ill intentions but to see a response, she said. But while that might make for good photos, it takes away the animals’ natural fear.

“They will literally approach small children and moving cars,” Mammel said.

Encouraged by Reid, Mammel and other rangers have been engaging in some hazing to keep the foxes from becoming overly friendly with humans.

When the animals get too chummy, Mammel hits them with a blast from a big blue squirt gun.

“They really hate water,” she said.

And she’s not averse to dousing a begging fox with pepper spray.

“The public gets horrified that we are scarring these little guys,” she said. “They ask, ‘Why are you making noise and running after them? I thought we were not supposed to harass wildlife?’ ”

Mammel uses such questions to start a conversation about why it’s best for wildlife to keep their distance from humans.

“Trying to keep a little fear of us in them is really OK,” she said.

Law enforcement officers have cracked down on visitors who don’t get the message by issuing $125 tickets for feeding the animals or for inadequate storage and handling of food.

To help make the point, Aubry will speak Saturday at the park’s third annual “Keep Wildlife Wild” event.

He’ll discuss animals’ roles in the ecosystem and their heredity. He also will make a pitch for the Cascade red fox.

“They are the native foxes of the contiguous United States evolving for hundreds of thousands of years,” he said, “and are critters to be cared about.”

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