A rare red fox is clinging to life in Washington State, up in the Cascade Mountains. It’s smaller than its lowland cousins, its feet are furrier, and it primarily eats pocket gophers. Researchers believe this alpine subspecies split from common red foxes during a past ice age and has remained genetically distinct because of its geographic isolation.
“A fox that’s down around Seattle and a Cascade red fox up on Mount Rainier were separated by almost half a million years of evolution,” says Jocelyn Akins, a biologist and the founder of the Cascades Carnivore Project. The nonprofit research group is grappling with a key question: How many of the foxes are left? “When a species is really rare, it’s very helpful to count them, but also extremely difficult,” Akins says. In the southern Cascades, the subspecies’ only known habitat, researchers estimate there are effectively fewer than 20 breeding foxes.
One unusual source of information about the animal is social media. Researchers study photos of Cascade foxes posted by visitors to Mount Rainier National Park. Another source is traditional knowledge. A member of the Skokomish Indian Nation named Alisa Smith Woodruff, or Yiiaylica in the Indigenous language, has scoured Northwest tribes’ storywork—fictional tales informed by fact—for references to the Cascade fox. In one story, a fox is outsmarted by a flock of snipe that would have otherwise become lunch. Pinpointing such tales can yield clues to the animal’s past whereabouts.
As far as researchers can tell, the Cascade fox’s current range may be half of what it once was. Climate change, competing species and park visitors who interact with the foxes have all factored into the declining numbers.
In June, state officials were set to designate the Cascade fox as threatened, a classification that requires the government to fund conservation measures in the peaks the animals call home. “My hope is that there will be new interest, and with it financial support, to understand what threatens” the Cascade fox, says Akins. Then officials, advocates and even Instagram-loving humans can better protect the distinctive animal and its habitat.