BEND, Ore. — In a dense forest at the base of Mount Bachelor, two wildlife biologists slowly walked toward a small cage trap they hoped would contain a rare red fox species. Jamie Bowles, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife technician in Bend, and Tim Hiller, founder of the Montana-based Wildlife Ecology Institute, stepped carefully as branches crunched under their feet.
For the past year, the state wildlife agency and Hiller's organization have worked together to trap and place radio collars on Sierra Nevada red foxes, a rarely seen subspecies recently discovered roaming in the Oregon Cascades. Officials have no idea how many live in Oregon, and fewer than 100 live in Northern California.
On the sunny Friday morning in June, the trap was empty, as were two other traps the biologists set near Mount Bachelor.
"This is a typical day for us," Bowles said. "Not having anything in the traps."
But the past year has been a success for their efforts to study the Sierra Nevada red fox, which they began researching in 2012.
When a fox was trapped and given a radio collar in May 2017, it was hailed as a first for Oregon wildlife biologists, who suspected the small mammals were here, but had little proof.
Since, six more have been captured and given collars. Last month, Bowles collared three in one week, two of them in one day.
In addition, hikers and campers have steadily reported Sierra Nevada red fox sightings in the last 12 months.
The collars, programed to stay on the foxes for one year, track the foxes as they move through the area. Data shows the collared foxes stay in an 8-mile radius near Mount Bachelor. The biologists believe the foxes have become comfortable around people and are relying on being fed or are rummaging for food in dumpsters at the Mt. Bachelor ski area.
Their reliance is not safe for them or people and their pets, Bowles said. The foxes can carry diseases, such as rabies.
"This is not ideal that they are foraging for food out of the trash cans or begging for food," Bowles said. "These foxes seem to be resort foxes."
Outside of the Mount Bachelor area, more people are reporting sightings of the Sierra Nevada red foxes. People are seeing them in the high elevations mountains, such as the Three Sisters Wilderness, but also in lower elevations areas in Tumalo and Terrebonne.
Citizen reports are helpful for the biologists. The foxes were thought to only live in high elevation above 4,500 feet. Bowles and Hiller have 16 traps set in various elevations across the region where the foxes have been seen.
"We are finding them in places we didn't expect to find them," Bowles said.
A huge component of the study is learning more about their range and dispersal, the biologists said.
"We want to know what habitat they are utilizing," Bowles said. "Both in the high, mid and low elevation now that we know they have dispersed lower."
When the study began in 2012, it relied on trail cameras and fur and scat collection. The initial work found the foxes living in the Oregon Cascades including Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Washington. It gave the biologists an area to set traps and begin tracking the foxes. Each trap consists of bait, usually pieces of roadkill deer, to lure the foxes.
The study is funded through federal grants and support from various agencies. Hiller estimates the grants and in-kind support is valued at about $100,000. The study has funding for another year, during which the biologist hope to collar and track 13 more foxes.
The High Desert Museum supports the study through its own carnivore-monitoring project in the Deschutes National Forest. The museum has 13 trail cameras set up to capture video of animals, including the Sierra Nevada red fox.
The museum hosts an educational program for local children and their families that allows them to take home a trail camera for six weeks and capture images of passing animals.
Last year, one family in the program captured valuable footage of a Sierra Nevada red fox in the lower elevation of Dry Canyon in Redmond.
Jon Nelson, curator of wildlife at the museum, said he regularly gets tips from people about Sierra Nevada red fox sightings. Just this week, someone reported seeing a den. Nelson passed the tip on to the biologists.
"The museum's role has been to educate the public and increase awareness about the species," Nelson said. "As a result, there are a lot of people in the community who are looking for them or recognize them when they see them."
DNA samples collected off the collared foxes have been sent to a laboratory at the University of California, Davis. The results confirmed the foxes are Sierra Nevada red foxes and they are living in lower elevations than originally thought, Bowles said.
The DNA data could confirm if the Oregon foxes are able to breed with the California foxes. If so, that could boost each region's population.
Sierra Nevada red foxes in California are on a waiting list for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. In Oregon, there is not enough information about the foxes to be on a federal listing. But the foxes are an Oregon Conservation Strategy Species, which means the species' population is unknown and could be at risk and also may be in need of conservation efforts.
Within the conservation strategy, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is seeking answers about the foxes' population, how they use their dens and how they interact with coyotes, Hiller said.
The biologists are learning about the species. The Sierra Nevada red foxes are generally smaller, weighing about 8 pounds. They have similar characteristics to other red fox subspecies in the West, including the Cascade and Rocky Mountain red fox.
Hiller said he always assumed the foxes spotted in Oregon were Cascade red foxes because Sierra Nevada mountains seemed too far away. Hiller is not sure if these Oregon foxes are native or came from California. But through his research, he discovered the Columbia River acts as a barrier between the Sierra Nevada red foxes to the south and Cascade red foxes to the north in Washington and British Columbia.
"It's pretty unlikely for a fox for swim a river like that," he said.
Sierra Nevada red fox fur is usually silver, red or a mix of both. All of them have white fur on the tips of their tails and on their chests. Each also has dark fur on their legs and the tips of their ears.
Of the seven with radio collars, two are red, one is silver and the rest have mixed colored coats. Five of them are female.
"There are variations in between just like people," Bowles said.
Hiller and Bowles use a computer program to follow the collared foxes. They also use a large, manual antenna that makes a beeping noise if a fox is near.
After checking the three empty traps, Bowles returned to the main parking lot at Mt. Bachelor ski area and grabbed the manual antenna out of her pickup truck.
If the antenna beeps quickly it means the radio collar has not moved in four hours — the collar fell off or the fox died. That happened recently when one of the seven foxes was found dead in a trap intended for a marten, a weasel-like mammal.
On this particular day, no fox died. Slower beeping from the antenna helped Bowles locate one of the collared male foxes. It was roaming in the forest near Todd Lake.
Bowles could not hide her excitement. It never gets old, she said. And for a rare species, every discovery is important.
"I keep track of my foxes weekly," Bowles said. "They do seem to move around a lot."
Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com
Kyle Spurr, The Associated Press