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State wildlife officials consider adding Cascade red fox to threatened species list

A fox with red, silver and black fur sits on snow with evergreens behind and looks directly at the camera.
Joe Ratterman
/
jratt, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
A "cross phase" colored Cascade red fox sits in the snow near Mount Rainier. The other common color phases are the red phase and black phase. Hikers and tourists occasionally cross paths with these foxes near Mount Rainier, which brings its own set of problems.

There’s an elusive fox, unique to Washington state, that lives high in the Cascade Mountains.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is considering putting that fox, known as the Cascade red fox, on the state’s threatened species list.

The subspecies' high elevation habitat makes the Cascade red fox hard to study. Fish and Wildlife has successfully caught glimpses of them in their natural habitat using cameras, but now the agency is worried about them. The department used to sight them up and down the Cascade Range, from as far north as the British Columbia border, to as far south as Mount Rainier.

Taylor Cotten, a conservation assessment section manager for Fish and Wildlife, analyzes population numbers for the department. He said sightings have disappeared in many of the regions they used to roam. Fish and Wildlife estimates there are only around 16 Cascade red foxes actively breeding.

“Even without knowing what our historic number of foxes were, we can see that, you know, maybe 30% to 50% of the range is currently occupied compared to what it used to be historically,” he said. “And that's a significant concern.”

Today, the fox can be seen near Mount Rainier, where tourists and hikers occasionally cross paths with the fox. That brings its own set of problems.

The Cascade red fox looks magical; its fur ranges from red, silver, to black, and they have big, pointy ears and intense round eyes. Their adorable looks could be why humans feel inclined to coax them with food.

“Feeding wildlife is never a good idea at all,” Cotten said. “It creates a dependency on the public for food.”

Sharing food can also infect foxes with diseases. Climate change is also impacting the fox as the lack of snowpack forces them to head toward areas where they face more competition for food with other animals like coyotes.

Cotten said that because the population is so small and the available mates are few, the small genetic pool also poses threats to the species, such as breeding with other kinds of foxes. Hybridization has the potential to erase the species.

The department will decide whether to place the Cascade red fox on the threatened list in September. Its addition to the list would bring renewed attention and possible funds to monitor and rehabilitate the population.

“This is a species that's part of the Washington landscape and part of the ecosystem that you don't find anywhere else,” Cotten said. “That's an important thing for us to prioritize and focus on and try to understand how we can recover and conserve these animals.”

Agueda Pacheco Flores is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, Crosscut and The Seattle Times.