For the first time in almost 100 years, the Sierra Nevada red fox has been spotted in its native territory within Yosemite National Park. The red fox is one of the rarest mammals in North America, with an estimated population of fewer than 50. They are the only red fox found naturally in the high-elevation habitats of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges in California.
After a five-day backcountry trip to confirm sightings, Yosemite National Park biologists released footage and images from motion-sensitive cameras capturing the fox on two separate occasions inside park boundaries in December and January.
The cameras used are part of a larger study funded by the Yosemite Conservancy to track rare carnivores in Yosemite, such as wolverines, black bears, and spotted skunks.
"National parks like Yosemite provide habitat for all wildlife and it is encouraging to see that the red fox was sighted in the park," said Don Neubacher, Yosemite National Park superintendent, in an official statement released Wednesday.
The endangered fox's numbers have been shrinking since the 1930's. The park is unsure of exactly why, but says that diseases contracted from domestic dogs, habitat destruction, and species competition with coyotes are all likely. Until recently, the species was thought to be almost extinct. Now, the sightings at Sonora Pass and Lassen Peak are sparking new conservation efforts and bolster biologists' ability to learn what may be hindering the species' recovery.
In the official statement, Yosemite National Park also said that a survey of red fox population distribution will continue with use of camera monitoring and "hair snare" stations, which allow biologists to obtain hair samples from animals for genetic analysis.
By studying the genes of the individuals, it can be determined whether or not the recently spotted fox is related to other Sierra Nevada red fox individuals spotted in the past.
"Confirmation of the Sierra Nevada red fox in Yosemite National Park's vast alpine wilderness provides an opportunity to join research partners in helping to protect this imperiled animal," says Sarah Stock, a Yosemite wildlife biologist. "We're excited to work across our boundary to join efforts with other researchers that will ultimately give these foxes the best chances for recovery."