John Perrine is a fifth-year graduate student in wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of California at Berkeley. He is also a researcher at the Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and a fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program.

Monday, 23 Jul 2001

MINERAL, Calif.

For many people, a mention of California evokes images of the glamour of Hollywood, the bustling streets of San Francisco, or the sheer weirdness of Berkeley. Others may think first of one of the state’s famous valleys, such as Silicon Valley, the Imperial Valley, the Napa and Sonoma valleys, or Death Valley.

Nearby, and yet a world away, are the majestic ridges of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. Here, along the spine of the state, dozens of small towns and villages rest among dense evergreen forests. One of the smallest of these mountain hamlets is Mineral, population 90, elevation 4,950 feet. I’m living here while I investigate one of the state’s most beautiful and elusive carnivores, the Sierra Nevada red fox.

Foxy! The Sierra Nevada red fox.

Photo: John Perrine.

These shy foxes, about the size of a house cat, occur in scattered locations above 4,000 feet in California’s eastern mountain ranges. They are a unique subspecies of the red fox, one of the world’s most widely distributed and well-known carnivores. As a species, red foxes occur throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, and they have been studied by literally hundreds of scientists. But ironically, virtually nothing is known about the Sierra Nevada red fox, except a handful of museum specimens from the 1920s and a few interviews with fur trappers from the same period.

As more and more people moved to the mountains, drawn by jobs in the timber industry and a peaceful way of life, the mountain red fox was seen less and less. In 1977, state and federal wildlife biologists identified the Sierra Nevada red fox as one of California’s highest research priorities. Three years later, the state wildlife agency listed the fox as a State Threatened Species. Biologists and land managers had little idea how many foxes remained or whether their numbers were increasing or decreasing. Even basic facts about their biology, such as what they eat and how many offspring they have, remained a mystery.

It wasn’t until 1999 that a comprehensive, three-year research project was started to learn more about these mysterious and elusive mountain foxes. Our research team from the University of California at Berkeley, in cooperation with the California Department of Fish and Game, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and the Lassen National Forest, is trying to address and answer many of these long-standing questions. This information is crucial for developing a successful strategy to protect and conserve the Sierra Nevada red fox.

Snowy California.

Photo: John Perrine.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is less well-known than her sisters to the south, Yosemite National Park and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. As its name implies, Lassen Volcanic National Park contains an impressive array of geothermal features, including steam vents, mud pots, lava beds, and volcanic cinder cones. Towering over the Park is Lassen Peak, an imposing volcanic dome more than 10,450 feet high. Its snowy peak bears silent witness to the powerful geological forces that shaped much of Northern California.

The park is surrounded by the Lassen National Forest. Together, they contain nearly a thousand square miles of habitat for a wide range of wildlife. Of the 20 species of terrestrial carnivores native to California, all but four (kit fox, island fox, fisher, and wolverine) can routinely be found in the Lassen region. Much of the area remains as wild and rugged as it was before the white men arrived. Standing on a secluded ridge, it is easy to forget the rampant population growth and resource consumption that typifies so much of California.

Our tiny research team is trying to answer a wide array of questions. How do the foxes find food in the winter when snow can pile to 30 feet or deeper? How much area does a single fox use in a day, over a season, or throughout its whole life? How long do the foxes live? What kind of habitat do they use for hunting and for raising their pups? Are they territorial like red foxes in other areas and, if so, how big are the territories? And what do we need to do to ensure the survival of these unique and fascinating animals?

Over the next few days, I invite you to accompany me — and my field assistants, Kristin, Whitney, and Samantha — as we use modern technology and good old-fashioned legwork to learn more about the elusive Sierra Nevada red fox.