Cascade Red Fox sighting near Tipsoo Lake in Mount Rainier National Park. Photo credit: Jocelyn Akins

The Cascade red fox is a rare Washington subspecies of fox specialized to live in alpine and subalpine habitats of the Cascade Mountains, and the only fox native to our state.

A medium-sized mammal Cascade red foxes have coats that come in a variety of colors from tan to red to black. Known to occur in the Mount Rainier and Mount Adams areas as well as some presence in the central Cascades including in the Teanaway, these elusive high-elevation animals are expected to be another beneficiary of crossing structures over and under I-90 constructed through the I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East Project.

The Cascade red fox has not drawn a lot of attention from researchers or public, but one person in particular has been paying close attention for nearly the past 10 years to documenting their range – Jocelyn Akins of the Cascades Carnivore Project.

Akins earned her Ph.D. by researching the Cascade red fox population south of I-90 in the Mount Adams area, where documentation is more common. However, investigating connectivity of individuals between the north and south Cascades on either side of I-90 has been her focus as of late. She is continually surprised by how such a small mammal also has such a wide range, and hopes to gain a better understanding of what their population status is on the northern side of I-90.

The small isolated populations of Cascade red foxes make them particularly vulnerable to threats and difficult to study and gather data on. According to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, most of the apparent threats to the Cascade red fox are not new but may be increasing in significance. Increasing human activities, and ongoing climate change may also be facilitating movements of coyotes, a potential competitor and predator, into the range of the Cascade red fox.

Lowland red foxes, bred from stock that originated in the eastern U.S. and escaped from fur farms, seem to be increasing in Washington and could hybridize with the Cascade red fox. Climate models suggest that wildlife restricted to high-elevation habitats like the Cascade red fox may be at risk of extinction due to climate change. All of these factors underscore the need for increasing connectivity between populations and potential habitat for Cascades red foxes to provide them options for movement on the landscape in response to threats and changing conditions, and to increase our understanding of our local population.

In addition to tracking all recordings of Cascade red fox through ongoing wildlife monitoring efforts, Jocelyn and her colleagues are working towards a study to assess connectivity and genetic structure of the Cascade red fox across its range in the Washington Cascades. They propose to collect DNA samples and model connectivity across the range using landscape genetics resistance modeling. In the field they will document Cascade red fox presence with remote cameras, trail surveys, and snow tracking while collecting DNA samples. This study will not only improve our knowledge of the population today, but aid in ensuring the long-term persistence of this rare mountain fox including how our resident local foxes respond to the connectivity improvements made on I-90.

While red foxes come in a variety of coat colors, or phases, there are three typical colors phases. The coat of a red fox does not change color with the seasons but rather stays the same throughout its year and lifetime. The cross-phase Cascade red fox, is distinguished by a dark band running down its spine and across its shoulders, forming a cross. Photo credits: Jocelyn Akins.

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