Humans urged to stay away from San Juan's red foxes - Salish Current
August 4, 2023
Humans urged to stay away from San Juan’s red foxes
Richard Arlin Walker

While not native to San Juan Island’s American Camp prairie, a species of red fox from Alaska has certainly found a home there. Feeding and other interference by humans take a toll on its population but no legal protections exist for the island’s foxes. (Photo: Molly Neely-Walker)

August 4, 2023
Humans urged to stay away from San Juan’s red foxes
Richard Arlin Walker

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Wildlife ecologist Gregory A. Green, with his long lens on his camera, was photographing foxes from a distance near San Juan Island’s American Camp prairie when a fox kit sauntered over.

It curled up next to him and began to nap.

“When I photograph a Rocky Mountain red fox den, I’m in a blind, I’m back, I’ve got my big lens and I’m really, really concerned [about keeping distance],” said Green, a professor at Western Washington University who collected and tested island fox scat samples for DNA tests to determine the foxes’ ancestry.

“But [San Juan Island’s] foxes are domesticated, they’re tame. These pups go from den to den to den and play with the other pups in those dens. They crawl right up to people because they’re curious.” 

High cost of human interference

Advocates for keeping distance between people and foxes say years of food handouts and other interaction with humans are to blame. And they say the cost has been high. 

Brad Pillow, a volunteer naturalist at San Juan Island National Historical Park and an advocate for keeping distance between humans and wildlife, said foxes have been struck by cars in the Cattle Point area while crossing the road to get to a house where they have been regularly fed. 

Amateur photographers crowd a fox den on a trail to Cattle Point Lighthouse in May 2022. The trail, on state Bureau of Land Management land, has been decommissioned. (Richard Walker photo © 2022) 

Amateur photographers have crowded fox dens, and kits have been killed by eagles as their families move them in search of more isolated den sites, Pillow said. 

Excursion companies have emerged to accommodate the growing interest in the island’s foxes, charging as much as $2,000 per person for photo safaris on the lands where foxes dwell. 

“You have photographers who’ve invested a lot of money and this is an easy place to go get fox photographs, which to me is kind of funny because everybody knows it’s not a native fox when you see the pictures,” Green said. “They get competitive out there and some of them can be aggressive, like ‘That’s my fox.’ It’s getting kind of crazy.”

It is against federal law to disturb or feed wildlife on national park land, but San Juan Island National Historical Park has no resources to enforce the law.

Fur farm survivors

Elexis Fredy, superintendent of the island’s national park, said she hoped DNA tests might reveal that the island’s foxes are related to the Cascade red fox, which the state Department of Fish and Wildlife listed as an endangered species in 2022. That could make resources available for enforcement, she said. 

Unfortunately the island’s foxes, introduced to San Juan in the 1910s and 1940s to control the rabbit population, are descended from Alaskan foxes that were farmed for their luxurious pelts, Green said. 

San Juan Island National Historical Park and some neighbors are coming up with workarounds to provide more distance between foxes and people. 

National park staff have raised the height of the split-level fences around the American Camp prairie, providing more of a barrier to the grasslands where foxes shelter and hunt for rabbits and voles. 

The federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land around nearby Cattle Point Lighthouse, has allowed grasses and plants to overgrow a trail that goes along a hedgerow where foxes den. Visitors to the lighthouse must now use a trail that is located away from the dens. 

Ordinance proposed

Fredy would like to see a law in the San Juan County code that mirrors federal law regarding disturbing or feeding wildlife on public lands. There is no such law in the county code. If there were, the county sheriff would have the authority to enforce it, because the county sheriff has concurrent jurisdiction to enforce county code violations on national park and BLM lands. [Ed.: updated Aug. 4, 2023]

Park staff do not have law enforcement authority.

Such a law would make it a misdemeanor offense to approach within 75 feet of wildlife on public lands; create a barrier that constrains animal movement; feed, bait or use devices to call wildlife; and stand near or on top of an animal den.

Pillow and Fredy say the foxes, regardless of origin and lineage, are still wild animals worthy of protection from human interference.

A pair of rabbits can produce 180 rabbits over the course of 18 months, as illustrated in a chart developed by Wheat Belt Natural Resource Development of Australia.

“Regardless of how they got here, they’re here,” Fredy said. “They’re wild animals, they’re a species we’re trying to protect, and that’s the mission of our agency.”

“We’re not a wilderness that has been untouched by man,” she said. “The landscape we’ve inherited has been tended since the Coast Salish peoples occupied and tended these lands. The species that are here – ourselves included – have benefitted from that landscape and have as much right to be here as any other species on the island.”

The natural order, disrupted

Green believes people should keep their distance from wildlife. Don’t feed them. Leave them be. Let nature take its course. Ironically, the island’s foxes and rabbits are examples of the tangled web humans weave when they mess with mature.

The European hare was introduced by settlers to the island between 1875 and 1895, and by the 1920s and ’30s, their population had soared. A doe can give birth to litters of eight three times a year; two rabbits can produce 180 rabbits in 18 months.

Adding to the wild rabbit population was the release of some 3,000 rabbits from a failed breeding operation on the island in 1934. At one time, there were an estimated 1 million rabbits on the 55-square-mile island.

Islanders attempted to control the overpopulation of an introduced species by introducing another species. Foxes were brought to the island around 1914 and in 1947 and subsequent years.  The rabbit population was reduced by foxes, periodic outbreaks of rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD) and hunting. Rabbit hunting camps hosted hundreds of visiting hunters in the 1960s, with some 42,000 to 126,000 rabbits bagged annuallySports Illustrated featured a story about the “sport” of rabbit hunting in its Sept. 28, 1964, edition

Rabbits today are found mostly on the American Camp prairie, which is within the boundaries of the national park. The prairie represents 3% of the remaining prairies in Washington state and the national park is reintroducing native plants and grasses as part of a prairie restoration plan. But the rabbits are tough competitors, chewing prairie plants and digging burrows. 

Without the foxes, damage from rabbits would undoubtedly be worse. 

“The foxes were brought to the island as biological control agents and they did a pretty good job of eliminating rabbits on the island except for American Camp,” Green said. “My concern about the foxes there is whether they’ve had an impact on seabirds or other native animal populations. We’ve got endemic populations of voles on the island and I’ve been concerned about whether they’ve been affected by the foxes.”

The Oregon vesper sparrow, a state-listed endangered species, is another island animal that could “be negatively impacted” by the island fox, according to the National Park. 

‘A fed fox is a dead fox’

Mount Rainier National Park is experiencing similar human-wildlife conflicts.  

“Although the park discourages visitors from feeding any wildlife, it has been difficult for the park service to completely stop the feeding of Cascade foxes in the park,” notes a 2022 state Fish and Wildlife Department report on the Cascade red fox population.

Feeding “places foxes at risk of conflicts with park visitors, conflicts with a visitor’s pet, visitor‐caused mortality (accidents, roadkill mortality) and disease transmission.”

Dogs are prohibited from most areas of the park, yet that prohibition is often ignored, according to the report. Domestic dog feces and urine can transmit several diseases to Cascade red foxes.

“Feeding can also be harmful to foxes because it promotes a dependency on human foods,” the report states. “In addition, it is inconsistent with the mission of the National Park Service to maintain the integrity of natural ecosystems and promote the enjoyment of natural ecosystems by park visitors.”

A juvenile fox was struck and killed by a vehicle in the road near the trailhead to Cattle Point Lighthouse in June 2022; one of several hazards foxes encounter when habituated to human contact. (Richard Walker photo © 2022) 

Pillow said continued human interference and feeding of island foxes could have grave consequences.

“As this island gets more built up, I hear reports all the time of foxes that are spotted in town,” he said. “That also is a good argument for not feeding them, because when and if they lose their fear [of humans], then they can become a real problem. Once they get habituated, the potential for biting a human gets higher all the time. Then they have to be destroyed.”

As signs posted at American Camp note, “a human-fed fox is a dead fox.”

Green advises those who want to view wildlife to stay on the trails. “If a fox comes toward you, you cannot feed it,” he said. “If someone is flipping kibbles and bits to them, that’s illegal. But it needs enforcement, and I’m fine with that, too.”

Cascade and island foxes at a glance

• Origin: “The Cascade red fox is the only native fox to Washington state and is uniquely adapted to life in the mountains,” said Tara Chestnut, an ecologist at Mount Rainier National Park. The Cascade red fox lives in the alpine and subalpine areas of the southern Cascade Mountain Range.

“All of the foxes in the lowlands, urban areas and islands are introduced to the state,” Chestnut said. “Many consider introduced foxes an invasive species, particularly on islands, because of the severe negative impacts introduced mammals (and especially predators) have to sensitive island ecology.”

• Lineage: The Cascade red fox is considered the true native fox. “It arrived in North America almost half a million years ago while the low-elevation individuals in western Washington are descended from foxes that migrated into North America at the end of the last ice age, approximately 20,000 to 12,000 years ago,” said Jocelyn Akins, conservation director for the Cascades Carnivore Project.

The later ice-age migration foxes are the ancestors of the Alaska fur farm foxes from which San Juan Island’s foxes descend.

• Appearance: The Cascade red fox commonly occurs in three color phases: red, cross, and silver/black. All three phases have been reported within a single litter of pups.

San Juan Island’s red fox population is distinguished by its prevalence of color mutations, among them amber, cinnamon and pearl, in addition to the natural standard red, cross, silver and black, according to Green. “Alaskan foxes are the mainstay of the early fur farm industry because they produced a more luxurious pelt than other subspecies.”

• Diet: Cascade red foxes prey upon a variety of small and mid-sized mammals, such as snowshoe hares, pocket gophers and voles. Cascade red foxes also prey on birds, carrion, fruits and insects. San Juan Island’s red foxes prey primarily on European rabbits, voles, berries and insects.

• Cousins?: Island foxes carry mitochondrial haplotype G — a DNA variant inherited from their mothers, Green said. “This is the haplotype found in Vulpes vulpes alascensis (Alaskan) and V. v. abietorum (western Canada).

Cascade red foxes carry haplotype O, Akins noted.

“Genetic testing has shown there is no genetic connection between the foxes on San Juan Island and the Cascade red fox,” according to Claire Crawbuck, biological science technician for San Juan Island National Historical Park.

There is a possibility the two species could be distant relatives — but not close enough for the island fox to get the endangered species protection extended to its Cascade cousins.

“It is true that some foxes with the native Cascade red fox O haplotype were captured and employed in fur farming,” Akins said. “If there were descendants with the native Cascade haplotype, they’d likely be very admixed with other genetic lineages and not be pure Cascade red fox or anywhere near there.”

— Reported by Richard Arlin Walker

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