Help This Desert Kit Fox Study Get Moving


This Indiegogo science campaign is wonderful.

Desert kit fox camera trap image from the Genesis Solar site

Desert kit fox camera trap image from the Genesis Solar site

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.

Comments

  1. PatrickG says

    That’s a pretty awesome proposal there, but I must confess to a blinkered financial reaction.

    A drone that can be deployed for 2 months in desert territory by grad students only costs $1,600? Wow. I’m guessing it’s a rental/lease agreement, but still… wow!

  2. ChasCPeterson says

    Drones? *spits* Why, back in my day, we’d tie an onion on our belts and go out walkin’ around in the desert looking for shit.

    I know where a couple of kit-fox dens are too, or used to be. Twice I scared one out of a burrow from which I was ttrying to extract a tortoise. One night, sleeping on a cot, I awoke quietly enough to watch one check out my campsite for a few minutes. But, yeah, I also saw a couple DOR.

    Think I’ll help this young biologist out.

  3. yazikus says

    A drone that can be deployed for 2 months in desert territory by grad students only costs $1,600? Wow. I’m guessing it’s a rental/lease agreement, but still… wow!

    I had the same reaction, “that is all????”
    This sounds like an awesome project. I hate the “desert as a wasteland” narrative.
    @Chas

    Why, back in my day, we’d tie an onion on our belts and go out walkin’ around in the desert looking for shit.

    Yeah, well in my day, we’d tie that onion on our belts, and go walkin’ uphill, no matter which ways we were goin. So top that.

  4. says

    PatrickG, not only is that the outright sale cost for the drone, but this project is offering the used drone as a premium for someone who underwrites the $1,600.

    I didn’t mention that in the O.P. because I wasn’t entirely sure I liked the thought of the Horde acquiring drone technology. B ut it’s the truth.

  5. consciousness razor says

    …you mean you didn’t EAT the onion?

    wasteful punks.

    It was the style at the time.

    I didn’t mention that in the O.P. because I wasn’t entirely sure I liked the thought of the Horde acquiring drone technology.

    What’s not to like? Just because we’re militant atheists doesn’t mean we’d use it aggressively or anything. Mostly they’d be useful for defense purposes, surveillance of hard-to-find gods, studying which regions have the most succulent baby populations, and so forth — innocuous things like that.

  6. says

    Hi! Dipika Kadaba here. The drone is LESS than $1600. This is the unit http://www.udrones.com/product_p/acrtf2.htm.

    $1600 includes shipping to me and my donor, indiegogo’s cut, and tax. It is an extremely robust RC quadrotor copter than can be operated via remote control and also can fly through waypoints programmed using sophisticated open-source autopilot software (https://code.google.com/p/ardupilot-mega/wiki/Mission) – which further reduces costs. Current FAA rules makes flying the unmanned aerial vehicle WITHIN eyeshot and below a certain altitude mandatory. It’s remarkably unscary with those rules. http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/uas/.

  7. consciousness razor says

    BTW I couldn’t get white onions, because of the war.

    But the drone does come with an onion on its belt? That’s quite a deal!

  8. rq says

    They’re so cute!
    The foxes, not the drones or onions.
    And the project is awesome, good luck!

  9. aspidoscelis says

    My $.02:

    The research is cool. I hope it gets done. If I had much of anything by way of spare money sitting around, I’d chip in (unfortunately, I do not).

    The conservation narrative is iffy. When you start addressing questions like, “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?” in a conservation context, we all know that the take-home message, if a good answer is found, will end up being, “It’s OK to fuck up that first stretch of desert so long as you protect the second one.” Single-species management is stupid, but it’s what we do. It’s also -not conservation-. The ecological value of a chunk of land is not determined by the presence of one particular rare and cute species, but that’s where this narrative is headed.

    I know, I know–the ESA approach is what we’ve got to work with in this context. It’s better than nothing… and “nothing” is pretty much the only alternative out there in the political landscape. But it’s still awful and we shouldn’t forget that.

  10. aspidoscelis says

    Oh, bugger. Replace “It’s OK to fuck up that first stretch of desert so long as you protect the second one.” with “It’s OK to fuck up that second stretch of desert so long as you protect the first one.” Oh well, you get the idea.

  11. says

    Hi aspidoscelis, (and I apologize if I’m helicopter parenting this thread too much),

    I completely understand you taking exception to the ranking and prioritization of anything biodiversity related. I may not have completely understood your POV, but I don’t believe that was an accurate portrayal of the conservation narrative of this study at all.
    This is not a species distribution study; if it was, I would not be proactively searching for signs of occurrence and working backwards from there to survey the landscape. 100% of the study area is in prime desert kit fox habitat that is known to actively home desert kit foxes. The reason the drone is such a boon is that I can survey 100% of my study area instead of just sampling, and tease out subtle correlations between landscape vegetation, vegetation prey, landscape prey… and all those permutations and combinations. Point being: I’m trying to reveal the ecological processes that cascade to affect desert kit foxes by studying a single habitat type. Not determine what habitat is suitable or unsuitable (for prioritization). I believe this knowledge is important when trying to assess the cumulative impacts of any kind of disturbance to their ecosystem.

  12. Banecroft says

    I wish I could donate but sadly my financial situation does not allow for such charity. I also wish I could have one as a pet as they are so very cute! If my financial situation changes I will be sure to donate to these wonderfully-cute animals. :)

  13. roxchix says

    I’m surprised nobody else has said this yet:

    Camping.In Chuckwalla Valley.in June, July and August.

    I know you have to work around your class schedule, but are you crazy? Take lots of caffeine, because (IME), at some point it will get too hot at night to sleep, even if you can handle the heat working during the day. And make sure your drone and camera (and batteries) can handle the heat. I’ve been part of surveys out there where the imaging equipment crapped out because it couldn’t handle the combination of ambient + generated heat, and rechargeable battery systems have often failed in the high temperatures.

    It sounds like a useful project though. In the Orocopias we found the kit foxes would come into camp even when we were there to dig up the sand where we dumped spaghetti water.

  14. Banecroft says

    The desert is too hot at night to stand?

    Technology can solve that problem… That is, if such a problem exists. :)

  15. roxchix says

    Banecroft- Her Indiegogo proposal offers ‘camping with them’ as one of the perks, thus, I conclude they will be camping. Her Indiegogo proposal isn’t written as a formal grant, and her project details aren’t specified, so I could be wrong. Maybe they’ll be renting trailers and running generators, I dunno.

  16. aspidoscelis says

    Hello Dipika,

    My wording last night was not as clear as it should be (it was late). My concern is not so much specifically with your goals for your research, but with what applied conservation results it could have (which is presumably out of your hands). So far as I can tell, studies on the ecology of species of concern basically have two possible outcomes in application: either they provide clarification of what portions of an area should be given preferential treatment because of the species of concern, or they aid attempts to modify an area to make it more suitable as habitat for the species of concern. In my opinion, this kind of single-species approach cannot provide meaningful conservation in the context of a diverse assemblage of plants and animals; in worst-case scenarios, it can directly cause degradation of an ecosystem as a whole in favor of one or a few members of that ecosystem (e.g., several national wildlife refuges are essentially waterfowl feedlots; great for the focal waterfowl species, otherwise no better than a corn field; historical recovery efforts for white-tailed deer were spectacularly successful at increasing deer populations, but favored creation of their preferred habitats so heavily that they are now an ecological plague in the eastern U.S. deciduous forest; etc.).

    Conservation biology can be a good excuse to do really cool biology and knowing more about kit foxes is eminently worthwhile for its own sake. However, I am skeptical of the possibility of this kind of study having positive results in the transition from research in conservation biology to applied land management. Talking about cute critters at risk is a great way to get people interested in your research… but… is it just a ruse? Or is there a plausible downstream benefit?

    I suppose I’m just being curmudgeonly. Hopefully you’ll prove me wrong.

  17. ChasCPeterson says

    Camping.In Chuckwalla Valley.in June, July and August…are you crazy?

    Aw it’s not that bad.
    in June.

    naw, it can be done by hardy enough young biologists. I’ve spent many nights of those very months (wel, probably not August) in the desert outside of Desert Center helping with lizard studies.

    aspidoscelis*: I’d say that an accurate accounting of abundance and density of mesocarnivores would be pretty useful information in terms of applied land management even in an ecosystem-centered approach.

    *(back in my day we called ‘em cnemis.)

  18. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    What a great project and use of drone technology. Thanks for the heads-up, Chris. We will be making a modest contribution sometime this weekend.

    What was with the dark/heavy music on the video? I kept feeling like we were headed for some sort of onstage animal sacrifice to the Gods of Metal! ;)

  19. octopod says

    Distemper link is borked.

    I like your approach. I’ve got my philosophical issues with old-fashioned conservation biology too, but if you’re using them as an entry point to understand the rest of the system, this makes a lot of sense. Plus the increased knowledge of these desert environments is VERY timely.

  20. aspidoscelis says

    ChasCPeterson wrote:

    I’d say that an accurate accounting of abundance and density of mesocarnivores would be pretty useful information in terms of applied land management even in an ecosystem-centered approach.

    True enough. However, framing research as a rare species issue, to my mind, starts things off in a very different direction. Once that conceptualization is in place, I think it’s hard to avoid the resulting single-species management approach… particularly given that land management agencies tend to have dozens of wildlife biologists but few, if any, ecosystem-level ecologists. I hope I’m wrong, though.

    BTW, in my personal herpetological lexicon “cnemi” is an accepted alternate pronunciation of “Aspidoscelis“. :-)