WASHINGTON — The rarely seen Sierra Nevada red fox could be the next candidate for federal protection, and perhaps political controversy, now that one has been photographed prowling near Sonora Pass, Calif.
California state law currently covers the fox. The federal Endangered Species Act does not. As scientists pick up the animal's elusive trail, regulatory and political choices will become more pressing.
"It looks like it may be an excellent candidate for listing," Lisa Belensky, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an interview Tuesday. "We're considering it."
John Buckley, director of the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, agreed that "there is justification for listing (the fox) and having a recovery plan."
But Endangered Species Act listing is also harder than ever, though 123 California plants and animals have already gained protection. The federal law remains intensely controversial, with its costs and consequences subject to question.
"Our state water supply has been hijacked by the radically irresponsible Endangered Species Act," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, declared in one illustrative House speech last year.
Radanovich is retiring at the end of the year. His all but certain replacement, Republican state Sen. Jeff Denham of Merced, appears to share the Endangered Species Act skepticism commonly voiced by Radanovich and other central California lawmakers.
Radanovich's 19th Congressional District includes Sonora and the Stanislaus National Forest, the region where scientists are now redoubling their efforts to find evidence of the Sierra Nevada red fox.
About three weeks ago, a remote camera set up by the Forest Service to monitor a bait station snapped an early morning picture of the red fox. Saliva samples subsequently analyzed by a University of California at Davis team confirmed the red fox's identity. The red fox was previously thought to be confined to the Lassen Volcanic National Park area, 150 miles away.
"Now there's proof, evidence that the fox's population has spread," Buckley said.
The tracks may eventually lead in several different directions.
If they want, federal scientists can propose adding the fox to the endangered species list that currently numbers 1,959 plants and animals. The Fish and Wildlife Service currently identifies another 48 species that have been proposed for listing.
An additional 245 species are deemed "candidate" species. These are plants and animals deemed to be at risk but which are not added to the protected list because of what the Fish and Wildlife Service calls "higher priority" obligations.
"There are species that sit on that candidate list for years and years," Belensky said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has said that its resources are limited, in part because of the obligation to respond to litigation filed by environmental groups.
If federal scientists don't propose protecting a species, others may step into the breach. Even then, though, years can pass before anything happens.
In 1976, for instance, a plant called the San Francisco manzanita was proposed for federal protection. In 1980, it became a candidate. Then: nothing. In December 2009, after the plant was found in a median strip in a road slated for expansion near the Golden Gate Bridge, environmental groups filed an emergency petition.
The law gave the Fish and Wildlife Service 90 days, until late March, to respond. In mid-August, five months after their deadline, officials concluded federal protection could be warranted and said they would embark on an additional year's worth of study.
Final decisions take even longer.
Officials formally proposed protecting the California red-legged frog in 1994, but didn't add the species to the protected list until 1996. Since then, under considerable political pressure, officials have repeatedly rewritten the frog's critical habitat documents that designate regions essential for the animal's recovery.