SACRAMENTO -- A rare Sierra Nevada red fox has been located in the Stanislaus National Forest near Sonora Pass, confirming that the species continues to survive in a region where it was thought to be extinct for nearly a century.
"It's really exciting," said Adam Rich, a wildlife biologist with the Stanislaus National Forest. "It's one of the Holy Grails for a wildlife biologist in California."
The Sierra Nevada red fox is one of the rarest mammals in North America. Until now, about 20 were known to exist in a small area of Lassen Volcanic National Park, a number considered too small to support the species long-term.
Rich and another Forest Service biologist, Sherri Lisius, rigged a remote camera station that captured images of the rare fox Aug. 11 near Sonora Pass on Highway 108. The camera station included a baiting device -- chicken parts stuffed in a sock -- that recovered saliva from the fox.
DNA was extracted from the saliva by Ben Sacks, an assistant professor of biology and canine expert at the University of California at Davis. Sacks confirmed the discovery by comparing the DNA with genetic samples collected from the Lassen population and from dead foxes in museums and other collections.
"What really had us dancing in the halls was that it had a very rare genetic signature," said Sacks. "It tells us there's been a population here all along, and there's almost surely more out there."
The species once existed throughout the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges in California, but it has been nearly exterminated by hunters, fur trappers and habitat loss.
The discovery of a population that has existed all this time in its original southern range raises hopes that this rare high-elevation species can be restored, Sacks said.
The animal's fortunes until now were considered so poor it has never been listed on the federal endangered species list. It is listed as threatened under the state Endangered Species Act.
Sacks said state and federal officials have begun planning additional surveys to learn more about the Sonora Pass population and to begin assessing its habitat needs and threats.
"Having a second population really gives us reason to say that we've got enough of a foothold that it's not a throwaway species," he said. "So let's actually put some resources into understanding it and trying to save it."