You should consider yourself very fortunate if you have glimpsed a red fox anywhere on the Kenai. This furbearer is considered to be one of the rarest animals on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and has been so for several decades. Red fox numbers are so low that most biologists working on the refuge have never seen one, and most trappers on the Kenai have never caught one.
Gary Titus, our local refuge historian, researched old trapper logs, government reports, and newspaper articles for any mention of red fox in the early 1900s. From historical records he was able to determine that red foxes were once apparently common on the Kenai Peninsula. The Dena'ina Indians regularly trapped them and occasionally ate them, noting they were especially good in the winter. Over the last century, excessive harvest levels, commercial fox farms, colonization by coyotes, nontarget poisoning of wolves, and disease all likely played a role in restricting the distribution of red foxes on the Kenai Peninsula and reducing the fox population to its current low levels.
Wilfred Osgood, during his biological survey of the Cook Inlet in 1900, reported that the Kenai foxes (Vulpes vulpes kenaiensis) were the largest fox known to North America, although this has not been confirmed. Thirty-five specimens of Vulpes vulpes kenaiensis and two specimens of Vulpes vulpes alascensis exist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology collections database at the University of California Berkeley. These specimens were all collected during 1906-1907 at various locations on the Kenai Peninsula including Swanson Creek, Kenai River, Seward, and Kenai in general.
Fox farming with both native and introduced stock appeared to have started not long after the 1898 Gold Rush. By 1916, Hugh Bennett, a biologist for the Soil Conservation Service, reported that fox farming was common: "There is much activity on Kenai Peninsula in raising foxes. The breeding animals are captured and kept in wire inclosures [sic], with careful feeding and protection. They are fed meat of the porcupine, rabbit, various birds, fish, and beluga whale. Good black fox pelts bring from about $500 to $1,000 each. Silver grays, which are rarer, bring still higher prices ... ."
Pursuit of wild fox for captive propagation continued into the 1920s although, apparently, with diminishing returns. The Pathfinder Newspaper reported in 1920 that "there is much activity on Kenai Peninsula in raising foxes. A large number of breeding animals have been captured on the Peninsula, and they are bred in captivity with great success. At the fox farm on Anchor Point thirty black foxes were raised during one season, thereby doubling the original number. The mother foxes were captured on the Peninsula ... ."
Perhaps the best synopsis during this period was provided by a game warden for the Biological Survey (a predecessor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Walter Culver (1923) realized that the red fox population would not be able to sustain both a trapping season in the winter and the removal of breeding females from the den sites in summer, and argued to close trapping for a few years. "Before the propagation of red, cross and silver foxes was undertaken to any extent there was a good supply of wild stock on Kenai Peninsula and the trappers were able to secure a fairly good catch each winter. In 1913-14 companies were organized in the East which sent men into Alaska to buy live silver and cross foxes. Competition was strong, good prices were offered and many trappers, both native and whites, scoured the hills during the late spring and early summer, raiding every fox den they could locate. Shortly after this the propagation of these animals in corrals was begun in the Kachemak Bay region and as the stock was secured from the wild the attack on the breeding dens continued. As long as there were only the legal trappers taking their winter's tool of fur the foxes were able to hold their own, but when the capturing of the live stock, both adults and pups began, their numbers decreased noticeably until today there are very few wild foxes to be found any place on the Peninsula ... ."
By 1926, the Saturday Evening Post reported that the Kenai, once rated as a great fur country, it has been almost trapped out.
Ironically, by the time fox farming became unprofitable in the Great Depression, fox on the Kenai Peninsula had already become rare. On March 26, 1932, the Seldovia Herald reported that Tony Martin had returned from his trap line along Fox River, at the head of Kachemak bay. "He made small catch, the usual thing it appears, this season, but the few pieces are of fine size and excellently shaded. A lynx, six black male mink, a collection of ermine and then there is the fox, golden red and brown ... T. Martin in all his trapping and woods experience had never seen anything like it. The fur has caused a sensation in Seldovia ... the scarcity of fur-bearing animals, T. Martin maintains, is due to depletion of the rabbit crop ... as with the fur bearers though, the veteran trapper regards the next few years as an adjustment period, and believes that with proper supervision return to normal conditions will be accomplished ... ."
Indeed, fox populations might have recovered after the fox farming industry collapsed in the early 1930s and as wolves became very scarce on the Peninsula. However, coyotes (which kill or displace red fox) were first documented on the Kenai Peninsula in 1926, and they were sufficiently abundant by the 1940s to become the focus of predator control by federal agents. Whether or not coyote-fox interactions or, subsequently, wolf-fox interactions have kept the red fox population depressed remains unknown but it is a reasonable hypothesis. Commensalism among the three wild canids and domestic dogs in the 1980s and 1990s may also have promoted disease in remnant fox populations.
In the mid-1980s, the last known red fox habitat was limited to open tundra and alpine areas, especially those in the Caribou Hills where traditional red fox dens were known to exist (less than 4 known pairs in the 1980s), and between Skilak and Tustumena lakes.
Unsubstantiated sightings of red fox have been received from the public periodically over the last three decades. Perhaps the most reliable sightings involved Win Staples, a graduate student at the refuge, who observed a red fox on the Kenai River Flats on May 9, 1997. Coincidentally, a local trapper reported seeing a red fox standing on the Swanson River Road near the Dolly Varden campground one month earlier on April 17, 1997.
There have been unconfirmed sightings since 2002 of red foxes near Kasilof, in the Caribou Hills, and as far east as Cooper Landing. In the summer of 2010, Sadie Ulman, a graduate student at the refuge, reported seeing one lone red fox cross the Chickaloon Flats, making this sighting the northern-most observation on the Kenai Peninsula to date.
One red fox was reported to have been trapped near Tustumena Lake in the winter of 2007-2008. This report however has not been confirmed. Prior to this harvest, the last reported harvests on the Kenai Peninsula occurred in the 1970s when 12 foxes were taken over 4 years.
The refuge has a Congressionally-mandated purpose to conserve fish, wildlife, and habitats in their natural diversity. Consistent with this purpose, the trapping season for red fox on the refuge was closed recently in recognition of the very low numbers of red fox now present. This trapping restriction is aimed at eliminating any intentional take of red fox on the refuge and providing incentive for trappers to release incidentally trapped fox when feasible. Refuge biologists are also hoping to collect any fur or skin and tissue samples for DNA analysis as it is quite possible that the existing red fox population may not be the same genetic strain that was originally observed by Osgood in the 1900s.
If you happen to see this elusive carnivore or its tracks anywhere on the Kenai Peninsula, please report your sighting to Liz Jozwiak at the Kenai Refuge Headquarters at 262-7021 or by email to email@example.com as soon as possible. Photographs would be especially helpful to assist us in confirming your sighting.
Elizabeth Jozwiak is a wildlife biologist for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. She studies a variety of Alaskan birds and mammals, but her current interests focus on carnivores.
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To report unusual bird sightings or hear what local birders have been seeing, call the Central Peninsula Bird Hotline at 262-2300. Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge website, http://kenai.fws.gov/.
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