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Voices of the Drought: California's Gray Fox

By Andrea Sargis, UC Davis

February 16, 2015

Wondering how California’s wildlife are coping with the megadrought? Alex Dopkin, a fifth-year undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis, has spent the last seven months spearheading a new camera trap monitoring project at the Quail Ridge Reserve to help address this pressing question.

While Dopkin’s main interest is the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), one of California’s most successful yet poorly understood carnivores, his cameras are documenting a lot more than foxes. See a short video of the wildlife caught on his cameras, including black bear, bobcat, and coyotes:

"Dopkin's project will contribute to building a photographic database of a wide variety of species at the Reserve, which researchers can later use to track population trends in response to climate change” says wildlife ecologist Mary Brooke McElreath, an advisor on the project.“It will also address a large gap in our knowledge of gray fox ecology. We have no estimates of gray fox population size, for any part of its range. We know shockingly little about them, even though they’ve been surviving here the past 3 million years or so, and probably have a lot to reveal about how wildlife adapt to climate change.”

The species is listed as stable and of least concern by the IUCN, and is not classified as threatened or endangered by the USFWS.  Consequently, very little research attention has been devoted to the gray fox.  This is in stark contrast to the Sierra Nevada red fox, which is considered endangered in the state of California and thus falls under the careful watch of researchers and wildlife monitoring agencies. For example, in the news recently are reports of a Sierra Nevada red fox siting in Yosemite, the first documented in nearly 100 years.

But why has the gray fox been so overlooked, compare to its red cousin? The problem seems to beGrayFoxportrait lack of funding, rather than lack of interest. Traditional funding sources are becoming increasingly hard to secure, so Dopkin has set up a page that allows anyone to donate to the project-- and there are many more websites like it (e.g. Kickstarter, Dreamfund, and Indiegogo) offering researchers new alternatives for raising money.Bobcat

“I’ve had to do a lot of self-networking and had to put a lot of my own effort into it by contacting family, friends and people I know abroad so they can network it out for me. It’s a lot of relying on people you know,” says Dopkin regarding the fundraising process. Dopkin has spent a great deal of energy on fundraising for the project, as his efforts have raised over $1,800 in the last 5 months.  With these funds he has set up nine cameras at the Reserve to monitor the daily habits of nine ear-tagged and three radio-collared gray foxes. In addition to a photograph, cameras record date, time, and temperature.

The tagging and radio-collaring of gray foxes is thanks to Ben Sacks, another advisor on the project, and Director of the Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Unit at the UC Davis Center for Veterinary Genetics.  Donations will help pay for more cameras and will allow researchers to tag and radio-collar more foxes this spring, which is vital to collecting more detailed information on this woefully overlooked species.

It may take a big investment up front, but Dopkin expects the payoff will be well worth it.

Stay tuned to Dopkin’s gofundme site for more project updates-- and more pictures documenting the secret lives of gray fox and other wildlife as they cope with yet another drought year in California.

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