Now and then this column likes to check in with some of the ongoing stories about Sierra Nevada wildlife. This week, I’ll share two encouraging stories and one that may not end so well. All involve creatures whose small numbers make them exceedingly rare.
Anyone who pays attention to wildlife in California is familiar with the gray fox. This common foothill animal is easy to see if one drives around in the foothills on summer nights, which is when the creatures hunt.
But are you familiar with the red fox? Bigger than their low altitude cousins, red foxes historically inhabited the snowy high country of the Sierra. Old park records document the presence of red foxes in both Yosemite and the Sequoia-Kings Canyon region but in very low numbers. As the decades passed, however, the animals seemed to disappear.
But now there’s good news – a motion-activated camera placed by wildlife researchers in the northern backcountry of Yosemite National Park has captured photos of red foxes this winter. The photos show a handsome fox strolling across the snow – the first confirmed red fox in Yosemite in several decades.
Scientists estimate the entire population of Sierra red fox to be fewer than fifty animals. A known population persists near Sonora Pass, and that locale had been the southernmost proven population of these northern animals in recent times.
It is possible that red foxes still endure in the southern Sierra? The answer is that no one really knows. Like Yosemite until recently, our southern parks have had no confirmed sightings for many years. But the habitat is right locally for this high country animal, so we can remain guardedly optimistic. It is just possible that red foxes still live in Tulare County.
More good news comes from the bighorn sheep department. By 1995, the known population of Sierra Nevada bighorn had dropped to barely 100 animals and the future of this iconic species seemed perilous. But since then, hard work has brought the animals back from the brink of extinction.
This past fall, the population of Sierra bighorn exceeded six hundred animals – the highest number in several decades. Many of these animals live in or along the eastern boundary of Tulare County.
Of particular interest locally is the recently re-established herd living in the Big Arroyo country just east of Mineral King. In coming years, as this group grows, many hope that some of these animals will begin to spend time on the peaks that rim Mineral King Valley.
Credit for this amazing reversal goes to an interagency team working under the umbrella of the Endangered Species Act. If you’d like to read more, check out http://www.dfg.ca.gov/snbs/RecoveryHome.html.
Finally, here’s an update on what must be the rarest animal in the Sierra Nevada. The known population of wolverines in the Sierra Nevada equals exactly one – that’s right, one animal. Once thinly scattered across the entire High Sierra, wolverines faded away until they were believed to be gone. Then, in 2008, a wildlife camera captured a photo of a solitary wolverine in the northern Sierra.
Since then, the presence of that single animal has been documented several additional times, but it remains alone. Studies elsewhere suggest that the average wild wolverine lives about seven years, so time may be running out for the Sierra’s smallest rare animal population.
Before we give up on wolverines, however, we should remember that we thought the red foxes were gone, too. The Sierra is still big enough – and wild enough – to provide habitat for rare creatures. That ought to be enough to bring a little cheer to us all.
© Wm. Tweed