Alpine Mesocarnivore Study

nighttime photo of a fox with a bushy tail and black legs looking directly at the camera
Sierra Nevada red fox in February 2018. CDFW remote camera nighttime photo.

Program Overview

In winter, the Sierra Nevada may look like a barren, inhospitable moonscape. Yet a surprisingly diverse assemblage of carnivore species can be found in this alpine zone during the harshest months of the year. In 2015, we began an ongoing study to better understand the distribution of these species. Each winter we deploy 20-30 remote cameras at high elevations (> 10,000 ft) of the Sierra Nevada south of Yosemite National Park. We design our surveys to detect mesocarnivores (small- or medium-sized carnivores) such as coyotes (Canis latrans), martens (Martes caurina), long-tailed weasels (Mustela frenata), short-tailed weasels (Mustela erminea), bobcats (Lynx rufus), and badgers (Taxidea taxus). Of particular interest are detections of rare, threatened, or endangered species like Sierra Nevada red foxes (Vulpes vulpes necator) and wolverines (Gulo gulo luscus). When remote cameras photograph target species, we follow up with ground surveys to collect fecal material for genetic identification. We use these data to model the distribution and density of carnivores in high-elevation habitats. In many of our project locations, our study represents the first systematic effort to survey for wildlife in winter, and some of the species we have detected were not previously known to use alpine habitat at any time of year. The information we are gathering provides valuable insight to managers planning for the conservation of these species and their habitat.

Key Findings as of March 2023

Recent News

  • April, May, and June 2022: multiple confirmed detections of Sierra Nevada red foxes (SNRF) in Kings Canyon National Park for the first time since the 1930s. See CDFW press release.
large, brown weasel-like creature sniffs at a rock
A fisher photographed at almost 11,000 ft in December 2018. CDFW remote camera photo.

Project Area Maps

nighttime photo of small animal with striped tail curled over its back
A ringtail photographed at 12,500 ft in October 2020. CDFW remote camera nighttime photo.
fox with gray and beige fur, a white tail-tip and black legs walking between boulders with snow in the background
A Sierra Nevada red fox crossing an alpine pass in June 2019. CDFW remote camera photo.