Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Sierra Nevada Red Fox Story

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not of Peace Corps

Today, I'm going to take a break from blogging about birds and Peace Corps to talk about a story I read yesterday. You see, I'm currently without a TV and am dependent on online sources for news. So I started using Twitter to keep up on news stories, and in general it works great. I can quickly scan headlines and find just the stories I want to read.

So yesterday morning, I jumped when I saw the following tweet via BreakingNews/LA Times (Note: all Bold formatting was added by me)

Sierra Nevada red fox, thought to be extinct, is sighted near Yosemite National Park - latimes http://bit.ly/9579je

OK, so that sounds like an entire species (I hadn't heard of) has been rediscovered. That would be really cool and exciting! So I click the link and read the LA Times blog.

The first paragraph says in part:
"The genetic signature [...] and a fuzzy photograph [...] have confirmed the existence of a supposedly extinct red fox..." (LATimesBlogs)

Wonderful news. I'm very happy. Then I read on to paragraph 4:

"The Sierra Nevada red fox (vulpes vulpes necator) lives at high elevations" (LATimesBlogs)

Hmm... confused. Why is that in the present tense? Also, Vulpes vulpes is the Red Fox, a common animal with a nearly worldwide range. This means the Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) is a subspecies.

Paragraph 5 then adds:

"However, the only known population of the Sierra Nevada red fox is a group of roughly 20 animals clinging to survival in the Lassen Peak region, about 150 miles to the north." (LATimesBlogs)

I'm very confused now. That means this species was thought locally (rather than globally) extinct from that area. That's a very important clarification, and the tweet/headline was misleading.

Now I'm curious about the rest of the story. I do subsequent searches to discover some more facts. One of the first things I find (on Mercury News) is this quote:

"The animal's fortunes until now were considered so poor that it has actually never been listed under the federal Endangered Species Act." (MercuryNews)

You know, until now, I didn't realize that's how the ESA worked: that an animal in such imminent danger of extinction would be considered beyond help(?!) Yet evidently getting a species listed is an arduous process that it can be cost-prohibitive to do so. That's sad if true, since it would give us misleading information. The Sierra Nevada Red Fox is currently listed as Threatened on both the California and Nevada state mammal list, while some other mammals with presumably larger populations (several bats and the Mountain Beaver) are listed as endangered.

"'Having a second population really gives us reason to say [...] it's not a throwaway species,' he said. 'So let's actually put some resources into understanding it and trying to save it.'" (MercuryNews)

I also didn't realize there was a "throwaway species" policy. I do wonder why would this one be considered as such. There are other endangered subspecies listed in California, such as California populations of Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Willow Flycatcher and Clapper Rail. We have managed to save animals with smaller populations than that under the federal ESA: Black-footed Ferrets and California Condors come to mind. I recall there were only 8 ferrets and 5 condors at their populations' low points. Both species were bred in captivity, have been reintroduced into the wild and have recovered to several hundred individuals.

A couple more notes:
1) I didn't find an online source (other than those recent articles) that listed the Sierra Nevada Red Fox as anything other than "rare" or "threatened". At least one states that it was never common.
2) At least one user posted a comment that they have seen red foxes elsewhere in the southeastern Sierras. So there are perhaps other populations of this subspecies besides the two cited by the recent story.

So my skeptic chimes are ringing here. There is no doubt that it is fantastic news when scientists notice a new population of a rare animal. I don't disagree that the fox should be protected if it is as critically endangered as they claim. Yet it sounds equally likely that this is a subspecies that is (and always was) rare, is not well-studied or understood, and that we'll find more populations once more people start looking for them. I actually do hope it's the latter.

That said, maybe I'm still just cranky about the alleged "rediscovery" of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker :-).

OK, back to the lycee!

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