Brief escape into the last month of adventure I've had doing fieldwork in the Pacific northwest, researching rare, elusive mountain carnivores.
Our story begins 100,000 years ago, with the emergence of the great ice sheets created by the Wisconsin glaciation. Once freely breeding, the ancestors of today's red fox were physically and reproductively isolated by the glaciers, and began to diverge. One population formed in a refuge in the northwestern corner of North America, while another formed south of the ice sheets in the United States. This southern population was in turn split by a vast, dry expanse in what is now the central U.S., and diverged into western and eastern populations.
When the glaciers melted during the Holocene, the once impenetrable barrier of ice was removed, and the two groups of foxes could once again move freely. While the northern foxes moved south, and rapidly expanded their range into the newly available lowland environments throughout North America, the south / western population did not adapt as readily, and followed the ice age habitats into the volcanically active high elevation mountain ranges of the Pacific coast.
This summer, I was hired by the Cascades Carnivore Project to help add to the pool of knowledge regarding these rare mountain carnivores in the southern Cascades of Washington.
Photo credit: Sean O'Donovan
My job, while I was in the field, was to walk many miles of wilderness trails, collecting scats and recording any potential fox prints I found. Any scats I located were sampled for genetic analyses, which will be used to determine the genetic structure of the Cascades fox populations, and whether the foxes are moving between mountain islands.
I also checked and baited camera traps, used to determine the presence of foxes and wolverines throughout the region.
Photo credit: Cascades Carnivore Project
The work was rugged, often requiring driving poorly maintained forest roads.
And, as is often the case with biological fieldwork, things did not always go according to plan. On what was to be my second to last day, I saw a storm rapidly approaching. Knowing that the terrain I had to climb would be potentially lethal if wet, I set up my tent on a flat grassy patch, and monitored the storm system. Within minutes, it began to rain, and the wind picked up its speed. I was soon surrounded by thunder and lightning, while within several hundred feet of the highest point for many miles. I slept for roughly three hours that night, and had to take an alternative route off of the ridge line, and out of the wilderness the following day.
The population status of the Cascades fox is little known. However, the sparse data we have indicate that they may be a rare, sparsely populated subspecies. With the climate of planet Earth changing and consequently altering mountain habitats, it is key that we understand the ecology of the Cascades fox. With knowledge comes tools for conservation, which may yet allow this ice age phantom to persist into the future.
Photo credit: Sean O'Donovan