Desert kit foxes are in trouble, facing threats from industrial development of their habitat to a deadly outbreak of distemper that's killing untold numbers of foxes. This week, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed to list the fox as a Threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act (CalESA), a move that if successful would afford the fox a bit of protection from development of its habitat.
Under CalESA, a "Threatened" species enjoys roughly the same level of protection as under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). State agencies are obligated to consider the welfare of a listed species when proposing or authorizing projects that could result in a "take," agency-speak for various kinds of harm to individual members of a species. If the fox is listed, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would have the authority to issue incidental take permits, require mitigation of habitat, and enact habitat conservation plans for the fox.
Life's tough enough for the desert kit fox (Vulpes macrotis arsipus) even in the best of times. A nocturnal denizen of the desert's creosote vegetative community, the desert kit fox mainly eats kangaroo rats. The foxes have been known to eat other animals, including ground squirrels, cottontails, birds and lizards, and black-tailed jackrabbits. That last is a remarkable feat given that adult jackrabbits generally outweigh desert kit foxes, which top out at around five pounds. Still, desert kit foxes' preference for kangaroo rats is strong enough that when k-rats aren't available, the foxes' populations can decline even when other rodents are abundant.
As rodent-eaters, kit foxes find themselves in competition with other desert predators including the omnipresent coyote. Given their diminutive stature, it's not at all surprising that desert kit foxes occasionally end up in the bellies of coyotes, which are not nearly as discriminating as the foxes when it comes to what's for dinner. Coyotes more often depress fox populations by eating up the available kangaroo rats, however.
Until the 2011 outbreak of distemper, which seems to have started adjacent to (and possibly because of) the Genesis Solar facility now under construction north of Ford Dry Lake, the majority of known desert kit fox deaths were roadkills. That's not surprising. K-rats are frequent victims of roadkill as well, and it doesn't take much for the foxes to get so distracted by the easy pickings that they end up as someone else's roadside meal.
Coyotes are an age-old enemy, and kit foxes have faced danger from roadkill -- and mining, and off-road vehicles, and livestock grazing, and suburban development -- for decades. But the Center for Biological Diversity's petition identifies two large new threats to the subspecies:
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.
In a press release issued Monday, CBD biologist Ileene Anderson spelled out the benefits that listing the fox would offer as further desert solar projects are considered. "Renewable-energy projects and the desert kit fox can likely coexist, but only with careful siting and thoughtful planning to avoid or minimize impacts," said Anderson. "Protecting the fox under the California Endangered Species Act will ensure that the well-being of this imperiled species is fully considered as these projects move forward."
Now that CBD's petitioned to list the fox as Threatened, the Department of Fish and Wildlife's Habitat Conservation Planning Branch has 90 days to prepare a report on the petiition to submit to the Fish and Game Commission, which then decides whether to accept the fox as a "candidate species." If it does, then a 12-month review period begins in which scientific information on the fox will be gathered and formal listing considered.
Listing as Threatened wouldn't save the fox by itself. We don't know how far the distemper virus has gotten into the population, for instance, and agencies routinely grant permits to "take" threatened and endangered species that end up doing real hrm to those species. But it's a step in the right direction.