Desert kit foxes are in trouble. They’re shy, they’re faced with competition even when things are good from other carnivores such as coyotes, and they’re increasingly being displaced by human industry. One recent distressing example of that last: builders of the Genesis Solar Project were trying to evict a population of desert kit foxes from the construction site in the Mojave-Sonoran transition zone. The foxes suddenly started dying of distemper, which disease hadn’t been known in desert kit foxes before.
Enviro groups petitioned this year to protect the desert kit fox, Vulpes macrotis arsipus, as Threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. Sadly, that petition went nowhere.
Here’s a quote from that piece of mine in the last link from Ileene Anderson, a desert biologist working with the Center for Biological Diversity, that pretty much sums up the kit fox’s situation:
At present, more than 114,000 acres of desert kit fox habitat are approved for largescale industrial solar and wind development and close to 1 million acres of desert kit fox habitat are currently under environmental review or application for large-scale industrial solar and wind development as of January 2013. Key threats from large-scale industrial energy development to the desert kit fox include habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation, and loss of connectivity, as well as direct and indirect impacts resulting from reduced ability for movement, increased competition and depredation, increased in non-native cover, mortality from roads, and displacement of foxes from den sites. In addition, a recent outbreak of canine distemper centered at a large-scale solar project site in the southern California desert highlights growing anthropogenic disease risks for the desert kit fox associated with habitat loss and development. Unfortunately, industrial-scale energy development projects approved to date have not properly considered the impacts and risks to the desert kit fox and the need to avoid, minimize and mitigate those impacts and risks to protect the species’ long-term survival.
One of the problems is that there just hasn’t been a lot of baseline science done on desert kit foxes. We know a few things. They’re nocturnal. They like to eat kangaroo rats. The will grudgingly eat other prey, including jackrabbits that can weigh more than they do, but without kangaroo rats they suffer population declines. They don’t like people much, though they seem not to be bothered by low-flying aircraft. We know a few other things about their behavior and sociality, but not so much about their choices of habitat. What distinguishes a stretch of alluvial fan covered in cresosote bush that the kit foxes like enough to move into, from a seemingly identical one across the valley that they don’t bother with?
It would be good to know that kind of thing as we develop the desert. That way, we can know where the really prime kit fox habitat is, and have a better idea of how our projects are likely to affect its viability.
Duke University grad student Dipika Kadaba wants to do the fieldwork to start developing that base of knowledge about desert kit fox habitat. I’ll let her explain:
For the tl;dw folks: Kadaba and her colleagues are trying to raise funds via her Indiegogo campaign to support four biologists in the field for a summer not far from here. They’ll use small drones to survey about 200 square miles of desert for kit fox dens. They’ll then conduct ecological surveys of plots both with and without kit fox dens to see what the differences are between kit fox habitat and not-fox habitat.
They’re looking for $8,000 to conduct this study, an eminently reasonable amount. It’s a really cool project and I encourage you to check it out and consider donating. For those of you who partake of the Great Blue Evil, Dipika has set up a Facebook page for her Desert Kit Fox Project where you can keep track of what they’re doing. Update: The project also has a blog for you Facebook objectors.
There are just so many aspects of this project I like, including finally having a reason to be glad drones exist. Check it out.