clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Foxes of northern Utah

The pink eastern sky signaled a beautiful sunrise over the Great Salt Lake. As I headed out across the marshes along the north shore of the lake's fresh-water estuary, the pastel colors of pre-dawn began to flood over the Wasatch Front. With all the rainy, dark days of a nasty El Nino hopefully past, some sunshine would be a welcome change in the marshes.

Just past 5 in the morning I spotted my first red fox, a hunting adult moving along the edges of the marsh not far off the road. In a blur it was gone, vanishing back into the reeds - but there would be more to come. A few minutes later I was idling along a rough dike road, keeping as low a profile as I could in my sport utility vehicle, trying to be quiet as I approached a den site. I rolled to a stop and killed my engine. Now it was a waiting game.About a hundred feet away, across a canal filled with water from the Bear River, I knew a mated pair of red foxes had set up housekeeping. I had seen a baby fox, a kit, or two, in late April venturing out of the den to explore their new world. In April snow still covered much of the marsh, but now the warmer days of spring had started everything growing.

While the light was still dim I stepped briefly out of the warm vehicle into the chill morning. As quietly as I could I removed my tripod from the ski racks where I keep it when I'm photographing wildlife and set it up with my 500-mm lens and Nikon camera body to shoot over the hood of the vehicle. My vehicle would serve as my photography blind.

The first light of the morning and the last rays of evening are the best times to photograph, so this would be a memorable experience if the animals cooperated. I only had to wait and hope.

The red fox, like its distant cousin the coyote, has been expanding its range into areas that rarely saw foxes previously. While there seems to be some debate over just how common red foxes were in Utah prior to its colonization in the mid-1840s, there is no doubt that the population is many times larger today. Some areas in northern Utah now have large fox populations. I have regularly seen red foxes in the Cache Valley, Utah Valley, around Bear Lake and throughout the national wildlife refuges that dot the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake. Because of the suppression of coyote populations through hunting and trapping, the red fox is free to expand its range, coyotes being one of the red fox's principal predators.

There is an interesting parallel to this in the history of America's oldest national park. After the wolves were trapped out of Yellowstone 70 years ago, the coyote population exploded. On dozens of photography trips to the park in the 1980s and early 1990s, I never saw a red fox in Yellowstone Park proper, only in adjacent areas such as Grand Teton National Park. Coyotes dominated the predator ranks and there would be days when I would see 20 to 30 animals out hunting in meadows. With the reintroduction of the gray wolf in 1995, coyote populations are returning to normal levels as the balance of predators returns.

More wolves mean fewer coyotes, which in turn means more red foxes. In the past three years I have photographed numerous red foxes in Yellowstone Park - a remarkably quick turnaround as I see it.

Along the Great Salt Lake, fox dens are a complex system of interconnected tunnels with multiple entrances. On the north shore occasional flooding has taught foxes to den on high ground, or at least on the highest ground available. Small hills, dikes and even roads are the only high ground, thus making the search for dens a little easier. I had also found that the best time to photograph the kits was early, before the day had heated up. With that in mind I continued to wait near the den site.

About 6 a.m., just before dawn, the first kit popped its head out of the den for a look around. Through my binoculars all I could see were two large ears rotating like a radar dish as the kit sought the sounds of a possible enemy. Then it popped out of the den entrance, a blaze of red in the green marsh. Only a few feet away another kit popped out of an adjacent entrance. Then another. And another. I sat in my vehicle and took a deep breath as I watched the scene before me. After only a few minutes there were eight miniature red foxes playing along the top of the dike near their den site.

Then the sun broke over the Wasatch Mountains and bathed the foxes in amber light. For a few more minutes I watched them play, tussling and wrestling with each other, playing tug-of-war with the wing of the previous night's meal, pretending to stalk and pounce on each other.

Although feeling a familiar thrill, the rush of anticipation, I was faced with a problem - how to get out of the car quietly and get to the camera.

With all the stealth I could muster I quietly opened the car door, trying to minimize the metallic clack of steel on steel. I walked from the car and quietly stepped to the tripod and glanced up, across the hood, toward the fox den.

Eight little heads were staring at me like I was Godzilla come to destroy them.

For nearly a minute I remained motionless behind the camera lens and tripod, most of my body hidden by the car, pretending to be part of the natural marsh setting. A few more seconds and they became distracted by a flock of geese leaving the marsh for area grain fields. Then they began to play again and I started to photograph them.

For the next hour the foxes ignored me, as well as the whir of my camera's motor drive and the pungent aroma of mosquito repellent that was coating me. Shooting through clouds of rising gnats and mosquitoes, I watched and photographed the social structure that these small foxes exhibited.

Of the eight kits, two were obviously smaller, with coats that were only just beginning to turn red. They all had white-tipped tails and dark socked feet and seemed to enjoy biting each passing sibling. As one laid on the ground resting, a sibling approached and bit its tail. It in turn bit the ear of the sibling in front of it, and that baby fox in turn attacked the tail of the first sibling that had started the melee. The kit that appeared to be the largest continued a mock attack on its siblings, pouncing at them as if they were mice, driving them back into the den momentarily.

I was engrossed in focusing and shooting when I suddenly heard a faint bark. Immediately the kits vanished into their den at the warning given by one of their approaching parents. This adult was not happy to see me. It was carrying what looked like a Canada goose egg in its mouth as it approached the den; obviously breakfast was about to be served. The adult slipped behind the dike, out of sight, and must have entered the den from an unseen entrance. I sat and waited for awhile, to no avail.

An hour and a few miles later I came upon another fox hunting down the marsh shoreline. I parked and waited for him to approach. With the same stealth I again set up my equipment and photographed the fox as he approached.

The colorful animal entered a patch of tall grass. A second later some kind of commotion started quickly and ended just as abruptly. As the fox came trotting out of the tall grass toward me, a striped skunk exited the grass going the other way at a full run back down the marsh shoreline.

I've heard of red foxes killing skunks, but I did not smell this skunk's unique odor, so their disagreement must have been brief. I've also heard of foxes swimming to get across small rivers and canals.

The red fox is the supreme hunter in its niche in nature. Putting its nose to the ground, a fox will sniff out its meals, whether it be birds, frogs, muskrats, eggs, mice or even the occasional skunk or chicken. A friend once described watching a red fox attempt to drag a trumpeter swan it had killed across a frozen lake, so a fox is capable of killing some animals that are much larger than itself. Around the Great Salt Lake, with all its nesting bird colonies, hunting would be especially good and litter sizes would be large, especially now that many of the marshes are about fully recovered from the flood damage that occurred in the 1980s.

Large populations of foxes could prove detrimental to the survival of nesting waterfowl, including geese and ducks as well as the nesting shorebirds and wading birds.

But like most wild animals, the impact of humans is always the greatest factor in their survival and proliferation.

Throughout Utah red foxes are trapped and hunted. In one account a duck club near the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge trapped more than 200 foxes in a single year on its property. Some efforts are being made by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to study the effects of foxes on the migratory bird populations in the northern part of the state, but this research is just beginning and any real conclusions would be hard to draw right now.

As we continue to build around the Great Salt Lake, Bear Lake and in Cache Valley, among other places, many of the areas' indigenous wildlife species are forced into fewer and fewer acceptable habitats. This will concentrate animals like red foxes into a small number of prime areas, while forcing others into closer proximity to man, which will result in unwanted interactions.

The wildlife management puzzle for the red fox is a matter of balance. But to find that balance requires a maze of scientific research and inter-disci-plinary actions on behalf of state and federal wildlife officials. How many foxes can an area support before the survival of the foxes is coming at the destruction of other species? How do we regulate the population or do we regulate it at all? What value do we place upon our wild lands actually having wild animals populating them?

Among all the hundreds of animal species I have photographed, it is the predators that I value the most, not just for their intelligence and beauty but also their ability to survive and adapt in the face of an ever-expanding human population of ultimate predators.

By 10 o'clock in the morning the action was over. The little red foxes had bedded down for the day in their cool subterranean den while their parents returned to the hunt. Heat waves were shimmering across the marsh as clouds of gnats and mosquitoes rose like little tornadoes along the marsh dike. The immense clouds of bugs had taken control of the marshes.

I collapsed the legs of my tripod and stripped off my photo vest, which reeked of DEET. As I headed away from the Great Salt Lake and back to my Cache Valley home, the morning sun was rising higher into the sky.

On this day and for a few hours Utah was still a wild place with wild animals to be photographed.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Creature feature

RED FOX

(Vulpes vulpes)

RANGE/HABITAT

Found throughout Utah, as well as around the world (mostly in the Northern Hemisphere), red foxes live in many different zones, including brushlands, wetlands, semi-desert areas and forest edges and farmlands.

DESCRIPTION

Red foxes have, as their name implies, a reddish coat as well as a large white-tipped bushy tail and black on the sharp snout, lower legs and backs of the ears. Adults can be 35 to 40 inches long, with tails about 13 to 17 inches long. Males are called dogs. (The red fox is a canid, a member of the dog family.) Females are vixens; infants are pups or kits.

DIET AND HABITS

The foxes primarily consume small mammals, such as rodents; some insects; birds and eggs; and plants and fruits. They have keen hearing and an excellent sense of smell, both useful in tracking and catching prey.

OF INTEREST

Other Utah foxes include the small gray-to-tan kit fox (Vulpes macrotis), found in the deserts, and the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), which live in brushy or wooded areas.

Sources: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and "The Encylopedia of Mammals," David Macdonald, editor