Sierra Nevada Red Fox To Be Protected as Endangered Species

There are fewer than 40 animals left in California.

Sierra Nevada red fox
Sierra Nevada red foxes are elusive animals.

National Park Service

The elusive Sierra Nevada red fox will be listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced. Federal officials estimate that the Sierra Nevada population of these foxes is down to just about 18 to 39 animals.

The endangered listing, published in the Federal Register on August 3, states that the Sierra Nevada distinct population segment of red foxes is in “danger of extinction throughout all of its range at the present time rather than likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.”

The listing continues, "While the exact number remains unknown, and is also subject to change with new births and deaths, it is well below population levels that would provide resiliency, redundancy, and representation to the population."

The organization opted against listing a second population of foxes which is located in the southern Cascade Range of Oregon and near Lassen Peak in northern California.

About the Sierra Nevada Red Fox

The Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) is one of 10 subspecies of red foxes found in North America. It's a small, slim fox with long ears, a pointed snout, and a long tail with a white tip. Their coloring can be red or black and silver or a cross of both. The foxes have a thick coat and furry paws that help them adapt to snowy, cold conditions.

This secretive species lives in all sorts of remote, high-elevation habitats. It can be found in dense forests, as well as meadows and fields.

Historically, the fox was found from the border of Oregon and Washington through the southern end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. But now the fox only lives in two small areas—Sierra Nevada near Sonora Pass and Yosemite and the southern Cascade Range of Oregon and California.

“There are only an estimated 18 to 39 adult red foxes remaining in the Sierras, mostly in and around Yosemite National Park. Their known range is from Yosemite National Park to Kings Canyon National Park,” Jeff Miller, senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, tells Treehugger.

The center first petitioned in 2011 to get Endangered Species Act protections for the fox.

“This species was first protected under California’s state Endangered Species Act in 1980. But there had been no coordinated state or federal effort to monitor or track foxes,” Miller says. “They were thought to be extinct in the Sierra Nevada mountains, but individual foxes were discovered in 2020 by remote cameras.”

Threats and Conservation

fox in Stanislaus National Forest
Fox photographed in Stanislaus National Forest in California. U.S. Forest Service

The foxes are vulnerable to natural threats like wildfires and droughts, as well as competition for prey with coyotes and decreased prey in general, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But there are plenty of manmade reasons for their decline too, experts say.

“Historical threats that led to the fox’s decline included poisoning and trapping, but trapping the species is now banned in California,” Miller, of the Center for Biological Diversity, says. 

“Current threats are habitat destruction from logging and livestock grazing, disturbance from off-road vehicles and snowmobiles, and habituation of foxes to humans and human food sources which may subject them to dog attacks, dog diseases and vehicle collisions.”

Climate change may also play a role.

“Climate change is projected to dramatically shrink the Sierra Nevada red fox’s subalpine habitat as hotter and drier conditions push its range farther up mountain slopes,” Miller says. “Climate change is reducing the Sierra snowpack, causing increased competition for food with coyotes. These foxes are also jeopardized by inbreeding depression due to small population size, and by hybridization with nonnative red foxes.”

Now that the population of foxes is listed as endangered, more steps can be taken to conserve one of the rarest animals in North America.

“There has not been a program in place to recover the Sierra Nevada red fox. One of the reasons we petitioned for federal listing is that the state of California failed to enact a coordinated, range-wide inter-agency program to research, monitor, protect and recover Sierra Nevada red fox populations,” Miller says.

The listing with the Endangered Species Act should prompt a recovery plan and program, he points out.

“It’s never a good day when we have to list a species,” Josh Hull, listing and recovery division manager for the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office, tells Treehugger.

“Taking this step for the Sierra Nevada distinct population segment of the Sierra Nevada red fox gives us an opportunity to accelerate conservation of the species. This listing will now require federal agencies to coordinate with us on projects that may impact the fox or its habitat.”

Some plans are already in place, he says.

“Thankfully, the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service are already great partners in conservation and have included conservation measures for the fox in their land management plans,” Hull says.

“We are also closely coordinating with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Nevada Department of Wildlife, federal partners, and researchers from several universities on a bi-state conservation strategy for the species. This strategy will be essential to putting the fox on the road to recovery.”

View Article Sources
  1. "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Lists Rare California Fox as Endangered." U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2021.

  2. "Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Endangered Species Status for the Sierra Nevada Distinct Population Segment of the Sierra Nevada Red Fox." Federal Register, 2021.

  3. "Sierra Nevada Red Fox." Center for Biological Diversity.

  4. Jeff Miller, senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity

  5. "Saving the Sierra Nevada Red Fox." Center for Biological Diversity.