Science Spotlight

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  • March 30, 2022
Close up of a young, healthy looking gray fox after rehab efforts

Fox finishing out rehabilitation and being prepped for release at Sierra Wildlife Rescue. Photo © Jackie Young

Anesthetized fox with burned paws lying on an exam table, with burned paws showing
Injured fox at Sierra Wildlife Rescue being prepped for initial debriding and cleaning of injured paws. Photo © Sierra Wildlife Rescue
 
Close up of a young gray fox with singed fur and whiskers, being held by a person
Injured fox shortly after being removed from under a porch in Pollock Pines. Photo © Sierra Wildlife Rescue

Each year, Californians filing their individual state income taxes can choose to donate money from their refunds or payments to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) Native Wildlife Rehabilitation Fund, line 403 on state tax form 540. Money from this Fund is then distributed through a CDFW competitive grants program that helps California rehab facilities support activities such as veterinarian treatment, animal care, facility maintenance and conservation education.

Sierra Wildlife Rescue (SWR) rehab facility in El Dorado County is a recipient of this funding, and recently helped a young, badly burned and injured California gray fox (kit) recover and be released back into the wild.

The kit was discovered hiding under the porch of a home in Pollack Pines on Sept. 6, 2021, after its residents returned from being evacuated from the Caldor Fire. The kit was estimated to be three to four months old, emaciated, burned and had extreme damage to its paws. 

“It took three days for our team to get the fox out from under the porch,” said Debbie Buckles, board president of SWR. “Once we got it out, we could see that not only was she singed, but she lost ear tips, and her feet were basically burned to the bone.”

SWR is usually called in on El Dorado County cases where injured, orphaned or sick wildlife are concerned. Their mission is to rehabilitate wildlife with minimal human/wildlife interaction in hopes to better the chances of a successful release back into the wild.

“We anesthetized her and debrided and cleaned the wounds,” said Dr. Marsha Birdsall, volunteer veterinarian with SWR. “Once she was bandaged up, we transferred her to one of our home rehab facilities. These are homes of our volunteer rehabbers that have larger properties with larger outdoor enclosures.”

At the home rehab facility, the fox was able to heal in an outdoor environment and be monitored by wildlife cameras set up around the property. This helps ensure that the animal will not imprint on people or begin to rely on human interaction while being monitored.

After nearly eight weeks, the fox’s injuries were getting better, but with some setbacks. Her burned and damaged skin and paws were healing, but she lost every paw pad, claw and several toes. SWR was concerned the lack of claws, paw pads and toes would make it difficult to return the kit to the wild.

“Our action plan in general is to return these animals to the wild,” said Buckles. “But we were concerned she wouldn’t be able to catch live prey or protect herself from larger animals.”

Thinking the fox would not be able to hunt or climb trees to avoid predators without her claws and toes, SWR reached out to their grant partner CDFW to see if the department knew of another facility that would take the kit in as an educational animal.

CDFW contacted Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue in Petaluma, and on Dec. 14, 2021, the kit was transferred to their facility where the team planned for it to live out its days at their outdoor facility. What the Sonoma County rehab team saw the kit doing while monitoring their property’s wildlife cameras, no one saw coming.

“The fox started showing signs that she could catch prey,” said Buckles. “She also found a way to climb. She would wrap her limbs around the tree, like a hug, and shimmy her way up.”

Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue began continuously conducting live prey testing with the fox, and it continuously would hunt and eat the prey. By mid-February, despite not having front or back claws, the fox was digging, climbing, hunting and grooming itself effectively.

“Now knowing the fox can hunt, climb, defend and groom itself we made the decision to bring her back from Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and release her back into the wild in El Dorado County,” Buckles said.

The fox was released back into the wild in El Dorado County on March 2, 2022, after nearly six months of being rehabbed.

“We don’t usually name the animals in our care because they are not our pets, they’re wild animals,” said Buckles. “… but this fox overcame so much, and we were all so invested in her making it back to the wild that we now call her Phoenix, because there’s a story that says the Phoenix bird rises out of the ashes. That’s what this fox did, it rouse out of the Caldor Fire ashes.”

CDFW’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Program currently works with more than 80 permitted rehab facilities (PDF) like SWR and Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue across the state. For the 2022 grant cycle alone, CDFW has distributed $547,000 to these facilities for them to continue their work in their communities.

“These facilities along with their satellites and army of volunteers are the ones who put in the long, hard hours year after year to successfully rehab injured, orphaned or sick animals and birds of California,” said Heather Perry, CDFW’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Program Coordinator. “When tax-filers make the choice to contribute to the Native Wildlife Rehabilitation Tax Fund, their support allows for grant funding that SWR, Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and many of our other permitted rehab facilities utilize to fund their work. The story of the Caldor Fire fox is just one example of what we can do when we all work together.”  

For more information on the Native Wildlife Rehabilitation Fund, please visit wildlife.ca.gov/tax-donation.

*According to CalFire records, the Caldor Fire started on Aug. 14, 2021and was active for 67 days. The fire burned through nearly 222,000 acres in El Dorado, Amador and Alpine Counties and destroyed 1,003 structures.

Media contact:
Leticia Palamidessi, CDFW Education and Outreach, (916) 708-8517

Categories: Science Spotlight
  • February 28, 2018

A trap made of small logs covered with pine and fir fronds is camouflaged in the snow between two tree trunks.
Camouflaged trap used to capture foxes for the study. CDFW photo by Jennifer Carlson.

A bright orange, bushy-tailed fox runs in snow toward dense forest
Sierra Nevada red fox bounds back to its native habitat after capture and study. CDFW photo by Scientific Aide Corrie McFarland.

The Sierra Nevada red fox has been the subject of intensified study by CDFW over the past decade. As they are notoriously tough to track and even tougher to trap, there are many unanswered questions regarding this elusive animal.

In an effort to better understand this state-listed threatened species, an ongoing research project seeks to capture and affix GPS tracking collars to them. The data collected will help biologists better understand the size and characteristics of the fox’s home range, its denning and resting areas, and its foraging habits.

The species has been outfoxing researchers for some time -- to the point where in the 1980s, it was presumed to have vanished forever from its historically occupied habitat in the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges. In March 1993, thanks to the then-emerging technology of infrared trail cameras, US Forest Service employees detected a single red fox in the Lassen National Forest.

That discovery prompted a wider study of foxes and other meso-carnivores in and around Lassen Volcanic National Park. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dr. John Perrine of the University of California, Berkeley, captured five individuals, primarily in the park, and placed radio collars on them to study their home range (both summer and winter), food habits and resting sites. Unfortunately, two of the collared individuals died within a year and none of the females reproduced during the course of the study.

Years later, CDFW launched a new study to determine the foxes’ current distribution in northern California and to address potential impacts on the species from activities including recreation and timber harvest. Initial efforts in 2008 used scat-detector dogs to survey portions of Lassen Volcanic National Park and the adjacent Caribou Wilderness. Then, from 2009 to 2011, trail cameras and hair-snaring devices were employed to survey high-elevation habitats in the Cascade Range from Mount Shasta to Lassen Peak. Yet foxes were only detected in the Lassen Peak area.

CDFW biologists have continued to survey for foxes with trail cameras, hair-snaring devices and scat surveys. Scats and photos are often obtained along Lassen Volcanic National Park and Forest Service hiking trails, because, like many other animals, red foxes frequent trails as they move through their territories. Analysis of the DNA contained in the collected scats and hair identified 22 individuals from 2007-2016. Some of these foxes are long-lived – samples collected over time from the same individual indicate that five of those individuals lived at least five and a half years.

CDFW efforts to capture and collar Sierra Nevada red foxes since 2013 were unsuccessful – until early February 2018. The nearly two decade-long dry spell came to an end at last when CDFW captured a Sierra Nevada red fox, a male that weighed about 10 pounds. It was captured in a “log cabin” style trap on National Forest land just outside of Lassen Volcanic National Park, near the town of Mineral. The fox was collared and released at the capture location, and CDFW biologists have been impressed by the distances he has regularly been covering since (five to six miles per day) despite the rough terrain and high elevation.

“Persistence played a large role in our success, because there are many days when we do not have any fox detections,” said CDFW Wildlife Biologist Jennifer Carlson. “We also ramped up our efforts this year by hiring two scientific aids rather than just one, which allowed us to literally double our efforts by putting more traps out across the study area.”

CDFW hopes to capture as many as four more red foxes this year. Scientists are using box traps, cage traps and a “log cabin” style trap that researchers have used in other states to capture both red foxes and wolverines. Capturing foxes is not an easy task given the cold temperatures and snowstorms, but as the Lassen population may only consist of around 20 individuals, it is imperative for the department to learn as much as it can about this stealthy animal.

For more information, please visit the Sierra Nevada red fox page.

Top photo: Senior Environmental Scientist Pete Figura and Senior Wildlife Veterinarian Deana Clifford release a red fox study subject. CDFW photo by Corrie McFarland

Categories: General
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