Lampreys: A Key Species in the High Desert Ecosystem

There is something special about a river that resonates with most people. Even when I was very young, I remember loving the smell and sound of water. Flipping rocks to catch crayfish and caddisflies, chasing minnows in the shallows, and watching salmon spawn on wide gravel beds under gin clear water are the kind of memories that filled my childhood. A kid in a creek or on the banks of a river is a biologist whether they realize it or not.

Riparian zones, the areas and vegetation adjacent to water, are extraordinarily rich places for life. All kinds of unique animals live in and along rivers, and especially as a kid it never took me long to find something I’d never seen before that would result in instant fascination. On one particular visit to a local creek as a child I wandered downstream from the splashing and noise of other kids swimming in the shallows. I wanted to see fish and insects and needed to find undisturbed water to do so. As I waded along a flicker of movement caught my eye in the deeper water to my left. Startled, I leapt on top of the closest boulder to get my feet out of the water as an alien-looking little brown creature emerged from the depths and into the sunlight, passing by the rock I was perched on as it found its way downstream. It was a silly thing to be afraid of; the creature was only about four inches long, but was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was long and slender and it undulated as it swam, almost slithering through the water like a snake. It wasn’t until years later that I realized what I’d seen was not a reptile at all, but rather a very unique and special fish called a lamprey.

There some clear characteristics we look for in the kinds of animals we display at the High Desert Museum as we strive to connect people to wildlife. We focus on creatures that are a part of high desert ecosystems, critters that have scientific importance, are of particular conservation concern, that have an interesting biology or natural history, and animals with a strong connection to culture. Taking those things into consideration, I cannot think of a more appropriate species for us to display than lamprey.

The most prominent species in Oregon are the Western brook and Pacific lamprey (the fish I saw so many years ago was probably the smaller brook lamprey species). Both are anadromous like salmon. This means that they are born in inland streams but migrate to the Pacific before returning again to reproduce. As migratory species they connect ocean and High Desert ecosystems, transporting nutrients inland from the sea. Upon entering fresh water to migrate and spawn, salmon and lamprey both stop eating. Instead they rely on huge stores of fat and oils within their bodies to see them through to the end. Some salmon will survive for months, their bodies deteriorating as they use up stored calories waiting for conditions to be just right to reproduce. Lampreys however, take this strategy to the extreme. Fish Entering the Columbia River in April or May will work their way through the river systems, possibly finding their way to some clear mountain stream here in the High Desert region, where they will shelter in the rocks for over a year, not spawning until the following summer. The physiology that allows them to do this means that their flesh is full of energy, and a tremendous resource for a vast ecological community that includes birds, mammals, people, other fish, and even plants that are the beneficiaries of lamprey nutrients after they spawn and die. The lamprey is an undeniably important and valuable component of High Desert ecosystems.

The lamprey is also a living fossil. One of the best known “living fossils” is Coelacanth, the famous fossil fish rediscovered alive in Africa in 1938. It arrived on the scene a paltry 80 million years ago. Crocodiles emerged about 200 million years ago and dinosaurs a mere 30 million before that. Lamprey predate them all, with a fossil record that stretches up to 450 million years. The evolution and persistence of lamprey in the fossil record is just one aspect of the fish that makes them so scientifically valuable and interesting. Whether you are a professional ichthyologist, a child perched on boulder in some remote Oregon stream, or a visitor to the High Desert Museum, there is a lot to learn about these wonderful fish. Visit our Autzen Otter Exhibit to see lamprey up close.

Native Foxes in Central Oregon: Part 3

Beginning in March 2015 Museum staff and volunteers, in collaboration with the USFS, ODFW, The Oregon Zoo, have placed more than ten bait stations and hair snares in areas of the Deschutes National Forest that had never before been surveyed for fox.

A whole deer is too heavy to carry into the forest and it’s more than a fox can eat, but venison is often still the preferred bait. The leg of a deer or some other smaller piece of meat is attached to a tree above a mechanism designed to snag a tuft of hair from any curious fox that visits for a free meal. A remote camera is attached to another tree facing the bait. As forest animals wander into view, a motion detector triggers the camera and a photo is taken.

When Museum wildlife staff or volunteers visit the bait station every month or two, they check the camera for photos of a fox. If there is one, hair is taken from the hair snare mechanism, documented, and bagged. Like any good biologist, we are also always looking for scat, and any we find that looks like it came from a fox is also bagged. Those samples go to a lab at the University of California at Davis for DNA analysis. There, researchers generate data that may hold answers to questions about habitat connectivity, what subspecies are present, and whether or not our high country native foxes are hybridizing with introduced populations at lower elevations.

Back at the Museum, images from the cameras are sorted and broken down into data. Numbers on a spreadsheet indicate what animals are using the forest at specific points in time and space. Thousands upon thousands of images are scrutinized, one at a time, with much of the work done by the Museum’s own “mammal team” volunteers.

Those same volunteers give daily carnivore talks. At those interpretive presentations, visitors get to learn about the ecology of many forest carnivores including foxes. They can touch a montane fox pelt and see a skull, as well as learn about the ongoing research and the story of mountain foxes unfolding in our own backyard. More than that, and one of the things that I love so much about the High Desert Museum, those presentations frequently become much more than a lecture. They sometimes turn into vibrant conversations between interpreter and audience, a two-way exchange of experiences, ideas and information.

Bend is a community of people with strong ties to the surrounding forest. People see foxes while recreating in the woods, and through the Museum, many people who previously gave foxes little more than passing notice have become more aware of the issues surrounding them. Now when they go hiking they notice tracks and scat, take photographs and record where they find foxes. Often they call me or return to the Museum to share their experiences. Some of my best leads about where to look for animals have come from engaged visitors sharing their knowledge of the forest with me after hearing our daily programs. The project has in many ways become an unofficial kind of citizen science.

In large part because of the flood of new data coming in, the USFWS determined in late 2015 not to list Oregon populations of Sierra Nevada Red Fox on the Endangered Species Act. However, just because they are not listed as endangered does not mean that foxes and other forest carnivores are not at risk. More information is clearly needed to make good data-driven decisions about managing many of these wildlife species, and biologists with the USFS and ODFW are hard at work trying to collect that information despite limited budgets and an already heavy workload.

Since that first sighting with my family in 2011, I have not had more than a fleeting glance of a fox in the woods. The flash of a white-tipped tail in the timber is about all I usually get, but I am thankful other people are seeing them and sharing those sightings with us. With support from the Oregon Zoo, the Museum will continue to assist state and federal biologists who are working hard to manage our wildlife resources. Staff and volunteers will monitor our cameras for foxes and other wildlife in the eastern foothills of the Cascades for as long as our help is useful. We will also continue to follow the changing story of the Sierra Nevada red fox in Oregon, and share it as it unfolds with visitors at our daily carnivore talks and other programs. I hope to check many more cameras in the year ahead, and to be lucky enough one day soon to see another Sierra Nevada red fox playing in the wildflowers in the Deschutes National Forest.

Native Foxes in Central Oregon: Part 2

Around the same time I saw the fox on the Cascade Lakes Highway, I was working on an undergraduate research project at OSU-Cascades. We were in the early stages of fleshing out a study idea using remote cameras to document the behavior of scavenger species around carrion. The work was tedious and unpleasant. Road-killed deer would be moved, with proper permits of course, into the forest. We then mounted remote cameras to see what carnivorous animals would come to feast. The images we captured would be used to test various hypotheses about how wild animals discover carrion and utilize it as a food resource. The job was much worse in the heat of summer, and the smell often

Not long after my family’s roadside fox encounter, my family was back at the lake. On the drive home we again encountered a mule deer that had been struck and killed by a car as it tried to cross the road same less than a mile from where we had seen the fox. It was a valuable opportunity to get a carcass already in the woods. No need to move it very far or touch it more than absolutely necessary. It would be a dirty job nonetheless, but a short downhill drag would have the deer into the trees and in an acceptable location. My family was not thrilled about helping, so I made a quick call to a fellow student who came up that evening and set up a camera.

Several weeks later, we returned to see what we’d caught on camera.

It’s always exciting to retrieve a trail camera. You never know what you’ll see in the images. This time though, we did not expect much. Experience told us that activity around carcasses that time of year is relatively predictable. High summer temperatures mean rapidly decaying meat, a good resource for specialized obligate scavengers, but not necessarily for most other species. Turkey vultures dominated our summertime data. Nevertheless, it had crossed my mind that the fox might visit. A smelly carcass will sometimes attract carnivores out of curiosity if not hunger. Sure enough, as we toggled through the images one-by-one, there was a fox. However this one was not black; she was red just like most people would expect a fox to be. Now we knew there were at least two in the area, and even at that time the significance of the discovery was not lost on us. Only a month earlier news stories had been circulating of a rare fox being recorded on Mt. Hood.

There is a lot we don’t know about native red fox in Oregon. For a long time there was confusion about which subspecies was even present. Earlier sources identified them not as Sierra Nevada, but as Cascade Red Fox, the same subspecies you find in the mountains of Washington State.

Old wildlife distribution maps are full of straight lines which often indicate a gap in scientific understanding at the time more so than a realistic boundary between populations. Some of those maps show the Oregon/California border as the separation between the two subspecies in question. More recently, the science has suggested that the foxes in Oregon are likely more closely related to populations in California, and are the Sierra Nevada subspecies. More data will help answer the question, but in my mind at least, the Columbia River is a far more realistic barrier between them than a human political border, as much as Oregonians may want to believe that Oregon foxes are good at keeping Californian foxes out of the state.

A few years back, this revelation had some significant policy and management implications. While all three of the Pacific Northwest red fox subspecies are considered to be rare and at risk, in 2010 the Sierra Nevada subspecies was petitioned by environmental groups for Endangered Species Act protection, triggering an official policy process that ideally would be based on lots of good data. But in those early years very little was known about the fox. Many believed the Sierra Nevada subspecies was one of the most imperiled carnivores on the continent, with only a few dozen individuals remaining in a few remnant populations in Northern California. That was before they started popping up in Oregon. Since those early Oregon discoveries in 2011 and 2012, the number of fox sightings has gone up, a lot. Researchers using trail cameras to look for wolverines in 2013 and 2014 turned up no traces of that montane mustelid in the Three Sisters Wilderness, but they did find foxes. My own little scavenger project ultimately documented the animals at four separate locations outside of the wilderness on Mt. Bachelor, and biologists and volunteers working for the nonprofit Friends of the Central Cascades Wilderness have also found them in the area. Foxes have been documented in Crater Lake National Park and on Mt. Hood. Research has been ongoing in the southern portion of their range in California, as well.

Perhaps more striking than the far flung remote camera detections of shy, elusive foxes off the beaten path, is the fact that recreationists have also been encountering the animals with increasing frequency in much more developed portions of the forest. In recent years some of the animals here in Central Oregon have become habituated to humans, something that is unfortunately not unusual for red foxes throughout their range. On a nearly weekly basis excited members of the public send me photos of foxes. My inbox has photos of a black fox by the road during Pole-Pedal-Paddle, and a red one under the ski lift at Timberline. Visitors show me cell phone images of foxes at Hoodoo, and foxes standing between the cars at the snow parks on Mt. Bachelor looking for scraps of food.

The Cascade foxes of Mt. Rainier in Washington are also famously tame, allowing tourists to hand feed them and take photographs. Constant sightings of a few habituated animals creates the impression of abundance and a burgeoning population, sometimes making the issue confusing for public audiences at the museum when we attempt to weave a complex story of habitat loss, climate change, conservation concerns, and huge gaps in the data for red foxes, despite their apparent weakness for hotdogs and other free handouts in the Mt. Bachelor parking lot.

Clearly, there was work to be done. Museum staff partnered with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to search for the elusive red foxes.

Native Foxes in Central Oregon: First Contact

It was the end of a hot summer day in 2012 on Little Cultus Lake. My wife was riding shotgun, two sunburned kids on the backseat, all of us singing along with the radio. As I eased around one of the winding corners of the Cascade Lakes Highway towards Bend, a flash of movement caught my eye. I slowed down, squinting to see a dark animal with a bushy tail and long, skinny legs drift across the asphalt. It was in no hurry as it moved through a shallow ditch and took a seat among the daisies and lupines along the edges of the ditch. I needed a better look, so slowed down and stopped about 40 yards away. Several years later, my work would focus on this elusive creature.

The animal was a red fox, a species known for being elusive. His coat was coal black and silver-tipped; the very tip of its bushy tail looked like it had been dipped in white paint. He was also very small. He ignored us altogether, snapping at insects around his head while his plume of a tail flipped back and forth in the grass. He scratched behind an ear, then wandered off toward the tree line. We watched for a few more seconds and then continued on our way as the fox disappeared into the shadows of the Deschutes National Forest.

Most Oregonians don’t think of foxes as rare. While the red fox is not as common in this state as in other parts of the country, it is not all that unusual to see one. Farmers, hunters, trappers and many other people who frequent the outdoors will tell you about the foxes they have seen, usually on irrigated farmlands around the state. However, the mountain foxes are more cryptic and, it would seem, less abundant. In order to understand what is going on here in Central Oregon, you need to know a little bit about the natural history of the red fox.

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is one of the most widespread and genetically diverse mammals on the planet, with as many as 45 recognized subspecies occupying every continent except Antarctica. Thanks to the historical popularity of fox hunting in England, as well their valued hide in the fur industry for centuries, some of those subspecies have been moved around the world into places where they do not belong. Introduced intentionally or having escaped from cages, these animals become invasive. Red fox are not native to Australia; hence, all six million or more of the foxes on that continent are descended from introduced stock. The same is true for some populations of red fox in the American West. Animals in parts of California, Oregon and other states are likely descended from non-native subspecies, and we think they tend to be those living at lower elevations and are the ones most often spotted by humans.

North America has native foxes as well, 13 subspecies according to some sources. Three of those species live in the Pacific Northwest. All three are frequently referred to as “montane fox”, or foxes that live in the mountains. The Rocky Mountain Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes macroura) is found in the Rockies and the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon, while the Cascades Fox (Vulpes vulpes cascadensis) and the Sierra Nevada Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) inhabit the mountains running up the middle of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. These animals evolved to live, so the theory goes, in a much cooler prehistoric North America. As the climate warmed over the millennia, these foxes retreated to the mountains. There among the conifer forests and talus slopes they adapted to deep winter snows, cold temperatures and a harsh environment.

Montane foxes have lush, warm coats. They are smaller in body size than the red fox most people are familiar with and have toe pads that are completely covered by winter fur, attributes we think aid them in moving across the surface of deep-packed and drifted snow.

As skiers in Central Oregon are well aware, those snowy high elevation conditions are increasingly unreliable. A changing climate and human development put species dependent on high mountain habitats at risk. In many recent years the snow has barely come at all. Other years it is heavy but wet, melts quickly, and is gone earlier in the spring.

Nonetheless, the mountains are beautiful. Numerous types of recreation are popular and human disturbance is pervasive in all seasons. The habitat has changed, and is continuing to change in ways that may not be good for montane foxes and other species that share their proclivity for high elevations and historically colder environs. As those little islands of remaining cold mountain forest become smaller and more fragmented, they also become increasingly isolated from one another. Separated by greater and greater expanses, the land may become devoid of mountain fox. There were many unanswered questions about what was happening with these intriguing creatures in the Cascades that humans weren’t seeing. So a group of us came up with a plan to try to find out.

Sierra Nevada red fox photos courtesy of LeeAnn Kreigh