Sierra Nevada Red Fox

Two photos of red foxes in the snow: left fox with red coat and gray tail, right fox with yellow and brown coat
Right: A Sierra Nevada red fox in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Left: A black and yellow-red Sierra Nevada red fox in the Sonora Pass area, near Yosemite National Park.

CGFW, Pete Figura (right); NPS, Jay Powers

 

One of the Rarest Mammals in California

Although once found throughout the Sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade mountain ranges, the Sierra Nevada red fox (SNRF) is now one of the rarest mammals in California. The subspecies' abundance and distribution had declined dramatically in the last century. Today, the only known populations reside in Lassen Volcanic National Park and the surrounding Lassen National Forest (known as the Lassen area) and Sonora Pass area, near Yosemite National Park.

The reason for the decline is unknown. Research, which began as early as 1937 under biologist Joseph Grinnell, has proven difficult due to the animals' low density and rugged habitat. Likely impacts include trapping (prohibited in 1974), reduced prey populations resulting from historic meadow over-grazing, competition from coyotes and American martens, and climate change effects such as reduced snowfall.

Success in current survey efforts may provide our best opportunity for understanding and fostering Lassen's native red fox. Learn more about current research.

As we continue to learn more about SNRF, the species is afforded some protection in its listing as
Threatened by CDFW. The Yosemite population has also been designated a Candidate Species for listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

 

Sierra Nevada Red Fox Features

The Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) is a member of the canid (dog) family that is found only in the Sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade mountains in California. This subspecies of red fox has genetic roots reaching back to the ice age.

SNRF is one of three of North America's ten red fox subspecies that reside in high elevation areas. The other subspecies are Cascade (V. v. cascadensis), and Rocky Mountains (V. v. macroura). In California, the Sacramento Valley red fox occupies portions of the Sacramento Valley and other non-native red foxes are widespread in low-elevation habitats.

Smaller in size than low-elevation red foxes, Sierra Nevada red foxes (SNRF) generally weigh 4.5 to 9 pounds, have a narrow pointed muzzle, large pointy ears, and a slender body and legs. SNRF are typically yellowish to reddish brown, but, despite their name, can also be black or silver. Handsome dark-brown markings adorn the top of their ears and shins and white covers their chest and stomach. Their bushy fox tail always has a white tip, is long and flowing and carried close to the ground where it adds an additional dimension to their length.

SNRF prefer to live at high elevations, normally above 5,000 feet, amongst red fir, lodgepole pines, and alpine fell-fields. Unlike most red fox they prefer high elevation areas even in winter. A handful of subtle adaptations aid its survival in harsh, winter conditions. Dense fur on its toe pads provide insulation and snowshoe-like float. An unusually dense winter coat provides warmth and insulation against the elements.

 
Graphic identifying physical difference between red fox, gray fox, and coyote
Determine the difference between red fox, gray fox, and coyote
 
A photo of fox prints in the snow next to the tip of a ski at left, at right small oblong pieces of scat on the snow next to a ski and boot
These fox prints and scat seen on the snow-covered Lassen Park Highway last winter suggest SNRF use ski and snowshoe tracks to facilitate winter travel and may be sighted in the vicinity.

Report a Red Fox Sighting

You can help further research on the distribution of the Sierra Nevada Red Fox. If you observe a red fox in the Sierra Nevada, Southern Cascade, or Klamath mountain ranges above 2,500 elevation, please report your observation by providing:

  • Date and time observed
  • Location
  • GPS (if possible)
  • Terrain (e.g. rocky slope, forest, meadow)
  • Photos
Report a red fox observation above 2,500 feet elevation
 
Loading results...
    Tags: fox

    Last updated: October 27, 2018

    Contact the Park

    Mailing Address:

    PO Box 100
    Mineral, CA 96063

    Phone:

    (530) 595-4480

    Contact Us