Cascades Carnivore Project: searching for mountain foxes and wolverines in the wildest of the West

By Matthew Pomilia

When many people think of a red fox, they envision a cute, furry little creature that they occasionally glimpse traipsing across some suburban intersection. It’s true, red foxes occur nearly everywhere in North America, Europe, and Asia, in just about every habitat, including densely-populated urban areas.

Cross-morph Cascade (mountain) red fox

What many people don’t know about the red fox is that there are dozens of different sub-species (it is unclear exactly how many, but estimates top out at around 50) which range far and wide, from the deserts of southwest Asia to the mountains of North America. In fact, red foxes are the most widespread land carnivore in the world.

The three sub-species of mountain red fox which occur in the U.S. (in the Cascades, Sierra Nevadas, and central Rockies) are adapted to the cold, harsh conditions of these high elevation areas, and appear not to mix with their low elevation-dwelling cousins. In light of this fact and considering the potentially devastating effects of climate warming (these foxes like it cold), questions have arisen about the future of the mountain red foxes.

Wolverine taking the bait

Enter PhD student Jocelyn Akins and the Cascades Carnivore Project (CCP). Since 2008, Jocelyn and fellow CCP researchers have been scouring southern Washington’s Cascade Mountains in an effort to document Cascade red foxes living in the area. While rambling in the high country in pursuit of red foxes (I alone traversed more than 200 up-and-down miles during my month on the fox crew), CCP researchers take the opportunity to collect valuable data on other carnivores, as well. Most notable among these is the mythical wilderness wanderer, the wolverine. Less is known about the wolverine than just about any other North American mammal, and given its affinity for rugged mountain landscapes, the wolverine has become an important piece of CCP’s research puzzle.

Wolverine caught on camera trap

Creatively employing a combination of camera traps, hair snaggers, and trail surveys, Jocelyn and her score of dedicated volunteers have had dozens of Cascade red fox and several wolverine detections in the mountains of southern Washington and northern Oregon over the past few years. As recently as ten years ago, wolverines were not even thought to exist as far south as southern Washington, while virtually nothing was known about the Cascade red fox. So, although many burning questions still remain to be answered, the CCP is off to a running start. Looking ahead, CCP researchers and fellow conservationists wonder if a resident wolverine population will re-establish itself in its historical range in the Lower 48 States. In the case of the Cascade red fox, we might wonder whether they will persist at all.

Typical Cascade red fox habitat

With both the climate and the conservation landscape of the American West in continual flux, the fate of all montane species, and perhaps especially these montane carnivores, hangs tenuously in the balance. We can only hope that this storybook landscape, replete with snow-capped volcanoes, undulating forests, and under increasing human pressure, will be capable of providing the wilderness that these majestic creatures need in order to survive well into the future.

A view of Mt. Rainier from the Pacific Crest Trail