Part 3: Bringing Phillip Home

A few years ago, High Desert Museum staff learned from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the Blue Mountain Wildlife Center in Pendleton, Oregon, had several non-releasable eagles.

One of the birds was a sub-adult male golden eagle that appeared to have been struck by a car. It also had serious levels of lead poisoning. Lead levels in raptor blood more than 65 micrograms are considered “clinical poisoning”. This eagle had levels more than 100, enough to be lethal.

Lynn Tompkins, the executive director of Blue Mountain Wildlife, successfully chelated the eagle (a process where lead is chemically removed from the bloodstream) and lowered the blood lead levels to under 5 micrograms per deciliter. She then flight conditioned the eagle and, after a few weeks, considered it strong enough to be released.

Unfortunately, six weeks after its release, the eagle was recovered starving, likely the result of a permanent wing injury and possible continuing neurological effects from lead poisoning that made it unable to hunt successfully.

This bird was now considered ”non-releasable,” yet still had some flight capability and looked perfect to the unsuspecting eye. Knowing this opportunity may not come around again for years, Museum staff completed the necessary transfer permits and made arrangements to travel to Pendleton.

Upon arriving at Blue Mountain Wildlife, staff watched the male golden eagle fly swiftly in the large chamber. While he looked strong, they saw a slight hitch in his left shoulder, which is what made him unable to capture prey following his initial release. He would be perfect for the education programs at the High Desert Museum, and (hopefully) be a candidate for the Museum’s Raptors of the Desert Sky and Sky Hunters free-flight programs.

Almost three years later, Phillip is one of the most important birds at the Museum. Phillip ties the research work the Museum has done into lead poisoning directly to the Museum’s education programs. He is a living example of how lead poisoning affects raptors and though he displays ongoing signs of neurological damage, he has a even temperament while being handled.

It took about a year of training before Nelson was comfortable having Phillip participate in the public education and free flight programs. The trainers combined traditional falconry training with positive reinforcement (food) and increasing exposure to people to bring Phillip’s comfort level with the public to the point where he participates in three-to-four programs a week, primarily educating visitors about lead poisoning in the wild.

Fun Facts about Phillip

  • He weights about 8 pounds.
  • His wingspan is 6 feet plus.
  • His favorite food is rats.
  • He can still fly, but is limited to 100-150 yards at a time because of a damaged wing.
  • He is well mannered and allows people to get near so they can see up close this magnificent bird.

 

Part 2: Searching for the Perfect Golden Eagles

Finding the right raptors for the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center is one of the most challenging aspects of managing the High Desert Museum’s wildlife education program.

One priority for the limited space at the Museum is conserving species of special concern, species that depend on public support for their survival. In many ways, the golden eagle is the epitome of this strategy. It is an apex predator of the High Desert and its survival is essential to sustaining a healthy ecosystem well into the future.

But there are many things to consider when assessing a new bird of prey for the Museum. First of all, these birds are not captives; they are wild raptors that have been deemed non-releasable due to severe injury or poisoning. As such, a facility must have highly-trained staff that understand the wild raptors and have the skills to interact with them and manage their health and safety.

Many non-releasable eagles have wing amputations due to car strikes or electrocution. At the Birds of Prey Center, the strategy is to acquire birds that appear normal as opposed to birds with conspicuous injuries. Wildlife curators feel strongly that exhibiting intact, vibrant individuals helps visitors connect to the majesty and beauty of species in the wild as opposed to the pity and sadness that often accompanies seeing a conspicuous amputee. It is a hard choice to pass on birds that need homes, but it is important to keep focused on the mission at hand – to educate visitors about High Desert wildlife.

The ideal candidate is a golden eagle that has experienced independence in the wild, having learned survival skills and is able to hunt, but has not developed an extreme resentment of humans due to the rehabilitation process.

Think about it from the raptor’s point of view. It is injured or poisoned as a result of human activity; it is captured, restricted, and subjected to repeated and extensive medical treatments. If it survives, the golden eagle, a very intelligent animal with a strong memory, often remembers the involvement of humans and can harbor deep resentment, but hopefully not too much because a rehabilitated golden eagle suitable for an education program must eventually bond with its trainers in its new home if it is to be successfully integrated into the facility.

This is often possible because wild golden eagles with hunting experience, even if injured or recovering from poisoning, bond more quickly with a trainer and learn faster given food motivations, creating an opportunity to truly spotlight the behaviors one would see in the wild.

At the High Desert Museum, golden eagles are flown and trained every day, including feeding from the glove. However, if they chose not to fly or train, food is never withheld.

The High Desert Museum currently has three golden eagles in residence. Phillip is an education raptor, especially telling the story of lead poisoning in the wild; Nicholas is on exhibit; and Walter is currently being trained for education talks and free flying. They can be viewed at the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center.

 

Part 1:  The Story of the Golden Eagle

Since its inception, a cornerstone of the High Desert Museum has been maintaining the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center and its collection of rehabilitated birds. It is a critical part of educating people about the support necessary for several species’ survival.

This is the story of the golden eagle on exhibit. His name is Phillip.

The High Desert regions of Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and Washington have become an important refuge for the golden eagle, a species whose breeding range once encompassed large tracts of the northern hemisphere. The vast high desert in the West still offer isolated nesting sites and the surrounding sagebrush seas offer abundant food in the form of jackrabbits, ground squirrels rodents and other birds.

However, raptor biologists began realizing that populations in the High Desert were declining, threatened by a number of human-based causes including electrocutions; car strikes; habitat degradation and loss, including higher exposure to people, exposure of isolated nesting sites, and threats to food resources; exposure to lead; and persecution in the form of shooting, trapping, and deliberate poisoning. In addition, people often ask about wind turbines affect the golden eagle population. While it is an active area of study, power lines and cars kill far more raptors than wind turbines.

Biologists believed these issues presented an alarming future for this apex predator. Based on these concerns, in 2013 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service established the Western Golden Eagle Conservation Team. Its mission is to evaluate the various threats to golden eagles and recommend conservation strategies to curb mortality rates.

This is where the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center comes in. It has in residence many birds of prey that were injured in the wild. Those injuries were so severe they resulted in permanent disability, at which a point a wildlife veterinarian deemed them non-releasable. In these cases, the birds were evaluated and based on the findings, euthanized or transferred to an education facility such as the High Desert Museum.

At the High Desert Museum, birds of prey, including its three golden eagles, are wildlife ambassadors, working with Museum staff to educate the public. Staff talk with visitors about raptor conservation and demonstrate the power and magnificence of these birds through free-flight programs and interpretive talks. Nothing is more impressive than a golden eagle standing on a perch 10 feet away. Visitors experience first hand the keen gaze of the eagle that can spot prey far away and the enormous spread of its wings that, when healthy, would have carried them miles, soaring above the High Desert.

Visitors also learn about their habitats and habits, and how we can all participate in minimizing human-cased threats to ensure their survival. For example, lead poisoning in birds of prey.

In addition to live rodents, rabbits, ground squirrels and other birds, golden eagles feed on carrion in the wild. And this carrion, often remains left by hunters, carries lead from bullets that gets ingested by golden eagles. Once lead is incorporated into the bloodstream at a large enough concentration, a bird can become very sick, exhibiting a range of neurological symptoms, such as tremors, convulsions, lack of coordination, and paralysis of the digestive system.

If the bird gets a large dose it can deteriorate and die directly from the lead poisoning. However, even at lower concentrations, lead in a raptor’s system impacts motor control and reaction times, likely contributing to other kinds of injury or mortality. This would account for why so many birds taken to rehabilitation centers for various mechanical injuries also turn out to have been exposed to lead.

According to the American Bird Conservancy, millions of birds are poisoned by lead every year.  Unfortunately, only a portion of these find poisoned birds find help at raptor rehabilitation centers like Blue Mountain Wildlife in Pendleton, Oregon, and eventual homes at facilities like the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. Switching to alternative source of ammunition, such as copper, would prevent many majestic birds of prey from being poisoned.

 

 

A Christmas card and a Camera: Objects with Stories to Tell

One of the most meaningful parts of working on World War II: The High Desert Home Front has been the opportunity to get to know veterans and their families. Our exhibit includes the stories, uniforms and personal belongings of four people who served during the war.

One of these soldiers is Hubert Croteau, a B-25 pilot. During his second mission, his plane was shot down over North Africa. Three of the men in his crew died in the crash. Croteau survived and was captured by German soldiers. They sent him to Stalag Luft III, a Nazi controlled camp for air force servicemen. Soon after, Hubert’s wife, Natalie, received a telegraph that he was missing in action. It would be another six weeks before she received news that Hubert was alive and had been taken prisoner.

Throughout Hubert’s imprisonment, he and Natalie exchanged letters, and Natalie sentpackages, including warm clothing. Despite the fact that conditions at Stalag Luft III were harsh—Hubert was often cold and hungry—the Nazi guards took pictures of the imprisoned Allied soldiers to prove that they were alive and in good health. Hubert sent one of these photos to Natalie. With it, she created a Christmas greeting that included a picture of herself inSpokane and Hubert in Stalag Luft III. This Christmas card is incredibly moving. Itis a testament to the strength of spirit of those on the front lines and those at home. After being imprisoned for 33 months, Hubert returned home and shared the next 64 years of his life with Natalie and their children.

Another favorite object is Harry Morioka’s camera. After spending a year incarcerated at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center, Harry was drafted into the U.S. Army’s unit of Japanese Americans. Because he was fluent in Japanese and English, he was selected for the Military Intelligence Service and stationed in Japan.

While overseas, Harry traded two packs of cigarettes for a Zeiss Ikon camera. As part of his military duties, he traveled around Japan, taking pictures everywhere he went. He even found his extended family, who he had visited once as a young boy. One day Harry and a friend packed a Jeep full of food, water and treats. They traveled several hours to deliver the supplies to Harry’s family. Conditions in Japan at the end of the war were dire, and his family credited Harry with saving their lives.

In 1946, Harry returned home. Harry and his wife, Kazuko, began the work of rebuilding their lives in The Dalles—before being imprisoned at Tule Lake, they had sold their home at a fraction of its value. They repurchased the house, paying well above marketvalue. Harry opened a business and became an active part of the community.

The Christmas card and camera are so special because of the stories they tell—stories of love and connection in the midst of hardship and war. Today, Hubert Croteau’s and Harry Morioka’s families are keeping these stories alive. Through them, these objects have much to say about American’s experiences during the war.

Lampreys: Not the Villain Portrayed in the Movies

Few people know about lampreys; fewer still have ever seen one. When they do see one for the first time the initial response is often is fear or revulsion. Most often this is because of the Pacific lamprey’s appearance and their parasitic feeding behavior once they’ve migrated to the ocean.

Evolutionary biologists make the argument that humans are hard-wired to fear things that slither and crawl, animals that may bite. Even if this theory is true, I would argue that the instinct is strongly reinforced by the society we live in. Movies and media depict monsters inspired by real life. Americans are immersed in the notion that some animals are good and some are bad, and those black and white ideas shape the way we react to wildlife. Not does the lamprey look like a snake, but it is also a parasite. Juveniles in fresh water are filter feeders that live in the sediment at the bottom of streams. However, adults (having migrated to the ocean to build up the stores of energy needed to spawn) have a sucker-like mouth lined with rows of sharp teeth with which they attach themselves to hosts (other large fish and marine mammals) and then feed by sucking blood and other bodily fluids.

From a Western perspective, lampreys look and behave in ways that many people find alarming, even scary. Unfortunately, this has led, in part, to their decline. Often considered a “trash fish, lamprey have been overlooked, abused, and persecuted in modern times. Their habitat has been altered, their path to the sea blocked, and they have been eradicated with little regard because their physical appearance overshadowed their importance within the environment. The lamprey has been lost from many streams within its historic range, and their abundance has plummeted from historic levels to point that their future existence may be in serious jeopardy.

Few animals are in greater need of public awareness and education. Please enjoy learning more about the lampreys on exhibit in the Autzen Otter Exhibit.

The Historical Significance of the Lamprey

The same characteristics that enable lamprey to persist for a year without food, also makes them valuable to the ecosystem and a precious and highly valued resource to Native American tribes. Historically, lamprey was a rich source of protein-rich food, higher in calories than salmon. They played a significant role in ceremonies and celebrations, and the oil was believed to have medicinal qualities.

The first Europeans setting in Americans brought many changes that devastated lamprey fisheries, and populations have continued to decline well into the 21st Century. Biologist attribute the ongoing decline of the lamprey to passage problems at dams, destruction of spawning and rearing habitats, declines in their food sources, and intentional poisonings of streams to eliminate unwanted fish.

Despite these challenges, Native American tribes have maintained a deep cultural connection to the fish. As a result, the tribes of the Columbia Basin have spearheaded efforts to conserve them, leveraging traditional ecological knowledge and merging it with contemporary fisheries science to restore lamprey to High Desert streams from which it had been lost.

Fish are trapped from locations such as Willamette Falls and Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, then moved upstream, past other dams and miles of degraded habitat before being released into streams from which they had been wiped out, hopefully to spawn and reestablish lost populations. The tribes have also done amazing work at spreading the word about lamprey conservation, educating the public and changing people’s perceptions about these misunderstood fish.

As one small part of that effort, the High Desert Museum is happy to display two adult Pacific lamprey from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. These fish are on display in the Autzen Otter Exhibit. Visitors can view and learn about the lamprey’s role in riparian ecosystems, as well as the history, science, and cultural ties these special fish have in the High Desert.

The wildlife staff at the High Desert Museum can’t think of a more appropriate species to help audiences discover cultural connections to the past and understand their responsibility for protecting the lamprey today and into the future.

Lampreys: A Key Species in the High Desert Ecosystem

There is something special about a river that resonates with most people. Even when I was very young, I remember loving the smell and sound of water. Flipping rocks to catch crayfish and caddisflies, chasing minnows in the shallows, and watching salmon spawn on wide gravel beds under gin clear water are the kind of memories that filled my childhood. A kid in a creek or on the banks of a river is a biologist whether they realize it or not.

Riparian zones, the areas and vegetation adjacent to water, are extraordinarily rich places for life. All kinds of unique animals live in and along rivers, and especially as a kid it never took me long to find something I’d never seen before that would result in instant fascination. On one particular visit to a local creek as a child I wandered downstream from the splashing and noise of other kids swimming in the shallows. I wanted to see fish and insects and needed to find undisturbed water to do so. As I waded along a flicker of movement caught my eye in the deeper water to my left. Startled, I leapt on top of the closest boulder to get my feet out of the water as an alien-looking little brown creature emerged from the depths and into the sunlight, passing by the rock I was perched on as it found its way downstream. It was a silly thing to be afraid of; the creature was only about four inches long, but was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was long and slender and it undulated as it swam, almost slithering through the water like a snake. It wasn’t until years later that I realized what I’d seen was not a reptile at all, but rather a very unique and special fish called a lamprey.

There some clear characteristics we look for in the kinds of animals we display at the High Desert Museum as we strive to connect people to wildlife. We focus on creatures that are a part of high desert ecosystems, critters that have scientific importance, are of particular conservation concern, that have an interesting biology or natural history, and animals with a strong connection to culture. Taking those things into consideration, I cannot think of a more appropriate species for us to display than lamprey.

The most prominent species in Oregon are the Western brook and Pacific lamprey (the fish I saw so many years ago was probably the smaller brook lamprey species). Both are anadromous like salmon. This means that they are born in inland streams but migrate to the Pacific before returning again to reproduce. As migratory species they connect ocean and High Desert ecosystems, transporting nutrients inland from the sea. Upon entering fresh water to migrate and spawn, salmon and lamprey both stop eating. Instead they rely on huge stores of fat and oils within their bodies to see them through to the end. Some salmon will survive for months, their bodies deteriorating as they use up stored calories waiting for conditions to be just right to reproduce. Lampreys however, take this strategy to the extreme. Fish Entering the Columbia River in April or May will work their way through the river systems, possibly finding their way to some clear mountain stream here in the High Desert region, where they will shelter in the rocks for over a year, not spawning until the following summer. The physiology that allows them to do this means that their flesh is full of energy, and a tremendous resource for a vast ecological community that includes birds, mammals, people, other fish, and even plants that are the beneficiaries of lamprey nutrients after they spawn and die. The lamprey is an undeniably important and valuable component of High Desert ecosystems.

The lamprey is also a living fossil. One of the best known “living fossils” is Coelacanth, the famous fossil fish rediscovered alive in Africa in 1938. It arrived on the scene a paltry 80 million years ago. Crocodiles emerged about 200 million years ago and dinosaurs a mere 30 million before that. Lamprey predate them all, with a fossil record that stretches more than 360 million years. The evolution and persistence of lamprey in the fossil record is just one aspect of the fish that makes them so scientifically valuable and interesting. Whether you are a professional ichthyologist, a child perched on boulder in some remote Oregon stream, or a visitor to the High Desert Museum, there is a lot to learn about these wonderful fish. Visit our Autzen Otter Exhibit to see lamprey up close.

Native Foxes in Central Oregon: Part 3


Beginning in March 2015 Museum staff and volunteers, in collaboration with the USFS, ODFW, The Oregon Zoo, have placed more than ten bait stations and hair snares in areas of the Deschutes National Forest that had never before been surveyed for fox.

A whole deer is too heavy to carry into the forest and it’s more than a fox can eat, but venison is often still the preferred bait. The leg of a deer or some other smaller piece of meat is attached to a tree above a mechanism designed to snag a tuft of hair from any curious fox that visits for a free meal. A remote camera is attached to another tree facing the bait. As forest animals wander into view, a motion detector triggers the camera and a photo is taken.

When Museum wildlife staff or volunteers visit the bait station every month or two, they check the camera for photos of a fox. If there is one, hair is taken from the hair snare mechanism, documented, and bagged. Like any good biologist, we are also always looking for scat, and any we find that looks like it came from a fox is also bagged. Those samples go to a lab at the University of California at Davis for DNA analysis. There, researchers generate data that may hold answers to questions about habitat connectivity, what subspecies are present, and whether or not our high country native foxes are hybridizing with introduced populations at lower elevations.

Back at the Museum, images from the cameras are sorted and broken down into data. Numbers on a spreadsheet indicate what animals are using the forest at specific points in time and space. Thousands upon thousands of images are scrutinized, one at a time, with much of the work done by the Museum’s own “mammal team” volunteers.

Those same volunteers give daily carnivore talks. At those interpretive presentations, visitors get to learn about the ecology of many forest carnivores including foxes. They can touch a montane fox pelt and see a skull, as well as learn about the ongoing research and the story of mountain foxes unfolding in our own backyard. More than that, and one of the things that I love so much about the High Desert Museum, those presentations frequently become much more than a lecture. They sometimes turn into vibrant conversations between interpreter and audience, a two-way exchange of experiences, ideas and information.

Bend is a community of people with strong ties to the surrounding forest. People see foxes while recreating in the woods, and through the Museum, many people who previously gave foxes little more than passing notice have become more aware of the issues surrounding them. Now when they go hiking they notice tracks and scat, take photographs and record where they find foxes. Often they call me or return to the Museum to share their experiences. Some of my best leads about where to look for animals have come from engaged visitors sharing their knowledge of the forest with me after hearing our daily programs. The project has in many ways become an unofficial kind of citizen science.

In large part because of the flood of new data coming in, the USFWS determined in late 2015 not to list Oregon populations of Sierra Nevada Red Fox on the Endangered Species Act. However, just because they are not listed as endangered does not mean that foxes and other forest carnivores are not at risk. More information is clearly needed to make good data-driven decisions about managing many of these wildlife species, and biologists with the USFS and ODFW are hard at work trying to collect that information despite limited budgets and an already heavy workload.

Since that first sighting with my family in 2011, I have not had more than a fleeting glance of a fox in the woods. The flash of a white-tipped tail in the timber is about all I usually get, but I am thankful other people are seeing them and sharing those sightings with us. With support from the Oregon Zoo, the Museum will continue to assist state and federal biologists who are working hard to manage our wildlife resources. Staff and volunteers will monitor our cameras for foxes and other wildlife in the eastern foothills of the Cascades for as long as our help is useful. We will also continue to follow the changing story of the Sierra Nevada red fox in Oregon, and share it as it unfolds with visitors at our daily carnivore talks and other programs. I hope to check many more cameras in the year ahead, and to be lucky enough one day soon to see another Sierra Nevada red fox playing in the wildflowers in the Deschutes National Forest.

Native Foxes in Central Oregon: Part 2

Around the same time I saw the fox on the Cascade Lakes Highway, I was working on an undergraduate research project at OSU-Cascades. We were in the early stages of fleshing out a study idea using remote cameras to document the behavior of scavenger species around carrion. The work was tedious and unpleasant. Road-killed deer would be moved, with proper permits of course, into the forest. We then mounted remote cameras to see what carnivorous animals would come to feast. The images we captured would be used to test various hypotheses about how wild animals discover carrion and utilize it as a food resource. The job was much worse in the heat of summer, and the smell often

Not long after my family’s roadside fox encounter, my family was back at the lake. On the drive home we again encountered a mule deer that had been struck and killed by a car as it tried to cross the road same less than a mile from where we had seen the fox. It was a valuable opportunity to get a carcass already in the woods. No need to move it very far or touch it more than absolutely necessary. It would be a dirty job nonetheless, but a short downhill drag would have the deer into the trees and in an acceptable location. My family was not thrilled about helping, so I made a quick call to a fellow student who came up that evening and set up a camera.

Several weeks later, we returned to see what we’d caught on camera.

It’s always exciting to retrieve a trail camera. You never know what you’ll see in the images. This time though, we did not expect much. Experience told us that activity around carcasses that time of year is relatively predictable. High summer temperatures mean rapidly decaying meat, a good resource for specialized obligate scavengers, but not necessarily for most other species. Turkey vultures dominated our summertime data. Nevertheless, it had crossed my mind that the fox might visit. A smelly carcass will sometimes attract carnivores out of curiosity if not hunger. Sure enough, as we toggled through the images one-by-one, there was a fox. However this one was not black; she was red just like most people would expect a fox to be. Now we knew there were at least two in the area, and even at that time the significance of the discovery was not lost on us. Only a month earlier news stories had been circulating of a rare fox being recorded on Mt. Hood.

There is a lot we don’t know about native red fox in Oregon. For a long time there was confusion about which subspecies was even present. Earlier sources identified them not as Sierra Nevada, but as Cascade Red Fox, the same subspecies you find in the mountains of Washington State.

Old wildlife distribution maps are full of straight lines which often indicate a gap in scientific understanding at the time more so than a realistic boundary between populations. Some of those maps show the Oregon/California border as the separation between the two subspecies in question. More recently, the science has suggested that the foxes in Oregon are likely more closely related to populations in California, and are the Sierra Nevada subspecies. More data will help answer the question, but in my mind at least, the Columbia River is a far more realistic barrier between them than a human political border, as much as Oregonians may want to believe that Oregon foxes are good at keeping Californian foxes out of the state.

A few years back, this revelation had some significant policy and management implications. While all three of the Pacific Northwest red fox subspecies are considered to be rare and at risk, in 2010 the Sierra Nevada subspecies was petitioned by environmental groups for Endangered Species Act protection, triggering an official policy process that ideally would be based on lots of good data. But in those early years very little was known about the fox. Many believed the Sierra Nevada subspecies was one of the most imperiled carnivores on the continent, with only a few dozen individuals remaining in a few remnant populations in Northern California. That was before they started popping up in Oregon. Since those early Oregon discoveries in 2011 and 2012, the number of fox sightings has gone up, a lot. Researchers using trail cameras to look for wolverines in 2013 and 2014 turned up no traces of that montane mustelid in the Three Sisters Wilderness, but they did find foxes. My own little scavenger project ultimately documented the animals at four separate locations outside of the wilderness on Mt. Bachelor, and biologists and volunteers working for the nonprofit Friends of the Central Cascades Wilderness have also found them in the area. Foxes have been documented in Crater Lake National Park and on Mt. Hood. Research has been ongoing in the southern portion of their range in California, as well.

Perhaps more striking than the far flung remote camera detections of shy, elusive foxes off the beaten path, is the fact that recreationists have also been encountering the animals with increasing frequency in much more developed portions of the forest. In recent years some of the animals here in Central Oregon have become habituated to humans, something that is unfortunately not unusual for red foxes throughout their range. On a nearly weekly basis excited members of the public send me photos of foxes. My inbox has photos of a black fox by the road during Pole-Pedal-Paddle, and a red one under the ski lift at Timberline. Visitors show me cell phone images of foxes at Hoodoo, and foxes standing between the cars at the snow parks on Mt. Bachelor looking for scraps of food.

The Cascade foxes of Mt. Rainier in Washington are also famously tame, allowing tourists to hand feed them and take photographs. Constant sightings of a few habituated animals creates the impression of abundance and a burgeoning population, sometimes making the issue confusing for public audiences at the museum when we attempt to weave a complex story of habitat loss, climate change, conservation concerns, and huge gaps in the data for red foxes, despite their apparent weakness for hotdogs and other free handouts in the Mt. Bachelor parking lot.

Clearly, there was work to be done. Museum staff partnered with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to search for the elusive red foxes.

Native Foxes in Central Oregon: First Contact

It was the end of a hot summer day in 2012 on Little Cultus Lake. My wife was riding shotgun, two sunburned kids on the backseat, all of us singing along with the radio. As I eased around one of the winding corners of the Cascade Lakes Highway towards Bend, a flash of movement caught my eye. I slowed down, squinting to see a dark animal with a bushy tail and long, skinny legs drift across the asphalt. It was in no hurry as it moved through a shallow ditch and took a seat among the daisies and lupines along the edges of the ditch. I needed a better look, so slowed down and stopped about 40 yards away. Several years later, my work would focus on this elusive creature.

The animal was a red fox, a species known for being elusive. His coat was coal black and silver-tipped; the very tip of its bushy tail looked like it had been dipped in white paint. He was also very small. He ignored us altogether, snapping at insects around his head while his plume of a tail flipped back and forth in the grass. He scratched behind an ear, then wandered off toward the tree line. We watched for a few more seconds and then continued on our way as the fox disappeared into the shadows of the Deschutes National Forest.

Most Oregonians don’t think of foxes as rare. While the red fox is not as common in this state as in other parts of the country, it is not all that unusual to see one. Farmers, hunters, trappers and many other people who frequent the outdoors will tell you about the foxes they have seen, usually on irrigated farmlands around the state. However, the mountain foxes are more cryptic and, it would seem, less abundant. In order to understand what is going on here in Central Oregon, you need to know a little bit about the natural history of the red fox.

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is one of the most widespread and genetically diverse mammals on the planet, with as many as 45 recognized subspecies occupying every continent except Antarctica. Thanks to the historical popularity of fox hunting in England, as well their valued hide in the fur industry for centuries, some of those subspecies have been moved around the world into places where they do not belong. Introduced intentionally or having escaped from cages, these animals become invasive. Red fox are not native to Australia; hence, all six million or more of the foxes on that continent are descended from introduced stock. The same is true for some populations of red fox in the American West. Animals in parts of California, Oregon and other states are likely descended from non-native subspecies, and we think they tend to be those living at lower elevations and are the ones most often spotted by humans.

North America has native foxes as well, 13 subspecies according to some sources. Three of those species live in the Pacific Northwest. All three are frequently referred to as “montane fox”, or foxes that live in the mountains. The Rocky Mountain Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes macroura) is found in the Rockies and the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon, while the Cascades Fox (Vulpes vulpes cascadensis) and the Sierra Nevada Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) inhabit the mountains running up the middle of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. These animals evolved to live, so the theory goes, in a much cooler prehistoric North America. As the climate warmed over the millennia, these foxes retreated to the mountains. There among the conifer forests and talus slopes they adapted to deep winter snows, cold temperatures and a harsh environment.

Montane foxes have lush, warm coats. They are smaller in body size than the red fox most people are familiar with and have toe pads that are completely covered by winter fur, attributes we think aid them in moving across the surface of deep-packed and drifted snow.

As skiers in Central Oregon are well aware, those snowy high elevation conditions are increasingly unreliable. A changing climate and human development put species dependent on high mountain habitats at risk. In many recent years the snow has barely come at all. Other years it is heavy but wet, melts quickly, and is gone earlier in the spring.

Nonetheless, the mountains are beautiful. Numerous types of recreation are popular and human disturbance is pervasive in all seasons. The habitat has changed, and is continuing to change in ways that may not be good for montane foxes and other species that share their proclivity for high elevations and historically colder environs. As those little islands of remaining cold mountain forest become smaller and more fragmented, they also become increasingly isolated from one another. Separated by greater and greater expanses, the land may become devoid of mountain fox. There were many unanswered questions about what was happening with these intriguing creatures in the Cascades that humans weren’t seeing. So a group of us came up with a plan to try to find out.

Sierra Nevada red fox photos courtesy of LeeAnn Kreigh