Skiing for Science
Skiing for Science
Depending on where you go in Yosemite, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter some wildlife: deer and coyotes in the Valley, marmots sunning on high country rocks, black bears searching for acorns in the woods.
Here’s one animal you’re not likely to come across: a Sierra Nevada red fox. These rare, elusive mammals, a California state-threatened species, live high up in the Sierra and Cascade mountains, where they roam remote forests and subsist on small prey and manzanita berries.
For nearly a century, no one saw the rare fox within park boundaries. Then, at the end of 2014, a remote camera captured an image of one trotting through the snow in the northern Yosemite Wilderness — the first confirmed sighting of the species in the park since 1916.
After that initial headline-making image, researchers continued searching for signs of the species. With support from Conservancy donors, they installed motion-activated cameras covering dozens of hexagonal study cells in northwestern Yosemite, a honeycomb of scientific possibilities spanning vast untrammeled terrain.
As of June 2017, researchers had pored over thousands of motion-triggered images and confirmed eight fox sightings: one in 2014, two in 2015, three in 2016, and two in 2017. Along the way, they also gathered information about competitor and prey species that share the fox’s remote habitat.
Our project coordinator, Ryan, has gotten an inside look at the work behind those precious snapshots (and behind another fox research technique: scat surveys). In October 2015, he joined a research crew for a three-day expedition to set up new camera survey stations. Sixteen months later, in the midst of a record-breaking winter that saw 41 feet of snow pile up in the high country, he headed out with the crew once again — this time, on skis. Read on for a look at his experience skiing for science in Yosemite!
That weeklong expedition contributed to the 252 visits that Yosemite’s carnivore crews made to set, check or remove cameras during the 2016-17 season, a notable achievement made possible by donors' support. They collected approximately 23,000 motion-activated images showing at least 14 species, including snowshoe hares, American martens, bobcats, porcupines and Clark’s nutcrackers. Sifting through those images also revealed a precious finding: at least three new detections of the Sierra Nevada red fox.
Every brief glimpse of a Sierra Nevada red fox, and of the animals that share its remote habitat, can remind us of the importance of keeping protected landscapes pristine and wild. The next time you heed the mountains' call, remember the often unseen creatures that rely on the forests, meadows and rivers along your path, and the simple steps you can take to minimize your impact. And in the meantime, enjoy this final glimpse of science in the snow:
Photos and video by Ryan Kelly, February 2017