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The Fox and the Hound

O.K.  I exaggerate.  The hound would be Koda who found the carcasses but he never saw the fox, nor was he interested in a hunt.

Several days ago Koda found a dead yearling deer partially snowed over under a dead tree root.  I recognized the yearling as one of the babies that had been frequenting my yard this winter with his sister and mother. How he died I wasn’t sure.  His ribs exposed and his rumen still inside but all the organs eaten out, and the head missing.  He could have just died from the harsh winter, or possibly a cougar kill that had been buried in the snow, and exposed when the snow melted.

Cougars will frequently just eat just the internal organs as they lack the ability to manufacture Vitamin A.  It had snowed the evening before and there were no cougar tracks to be found, just a lot of canine tracks.  I’m not very familiar with fox tracks vs. coyote tracks, so I just wasn’t sure which one it was.  I put my trail camera on movie, and left it there for two days.  I wanted to make sure I didn’t run into any bears.  I heard they are starting to emerge, and they’d be looking for winter kills.  The boar grizzlies emerge first.  In the 6 winters I’ve been here, my limited experience is that while Yellowstone and the North Fork report bears in early March a lot of times, our area is slightly later by about a month.  We may just have more forest without homes, while the North Fork is a narrow corridor with a lot of cabins.

I returned in two days to find this video on my camera.

Now armed with the knowledge that these tracks clearly belonged to a fox, I checked all around and noticed a distinct path the fox had followed to, and from, the carcass up the hill.  This fox had followed his own trail to the carcass then back to his den or lay.  Clearly the trail was deliberate, not like a wandering excursion.  So I got my GPS out and followed his trail.

Wolf track lower left; fox track lower right.  Then they cross.

Wolf track lower left; fox track lower right. Then they cross.

Fox track and ruler

Fox track and ruler; foxes have lots of fur on their feet which makes for indistinct tracks

Following the fox’s track reminded me of when I followed a bobcat track up this same mountain last year.  Up and up he went.  Unlike coyotes or wolves who like to follow path (like deer paths), or course across a hill or mountain, this guy was going straight up and ignoring worn paths.

Fox track close-up

Fox track close-up

As I got higher, the snow softened and I kept ‘post-holing’; each footstep was sinking deep into the drifts and I had a hard time climbing.  The fox on the other hand was gliding across the snow.  Koda was sinking too.  Of course, Koda weighs 90 pounds and that fox might weigh 20 pounds.

Fox continues but I don't

Fox continues but I don’t

Finally, I could just go no more.  I was high up the mountain, on steep sides with deep snow.  I took a GPS reading, hung a bit of shiny stuff on a limb, and decided to return when the snows melted some and explore.

Where I had to stop because of deep snow

Where I had to stop because of deep snow

This is exactly what happened when I followed a bobcat last year.  I lost his tracks when the mountain turned into a jumble of boulders high up near its summit. Probably he had his den there as bobcats like rock shelters.

Foxes according to Rezendes, might be a link between canines and felines. He writes:

In fack, there was originally some dispute as to whether foxes should be classed taxonomically as dogs or cats.  Cats are direct-registering animals, and foxes are direct-registering animals.  Foxes have eyes similar to those of cats; their pupils dilate elliptically, up and down, rather than in a round fashion, as dogs’ eyes do.

And gray foxes can climb trees, the only canine that can do so.  Plus they have semi-retractable claws.  A lot of times their claws do not show in tracks.

Red fox pelts come in the full variety of colors, from red to black, grey to white. But always they have the white tip.  Red foxes are native to North America.

Just a few of the possible fox coat colors

Just a few of the possible fox coat colors

 It is believed they crossed into North America sometime during the last ice age about 35,000 to 11,500 years ago.  Foxes of this wave are closely related to the European, and Canadian red fox. But in the Beartooth mountains by my home, there is another red fox that is being studied.  These foxes are believed to have arrived during the Illinoian glacier period, 310,000 to 128,000 years ago, and could be the ancestors to a genetically isolated populations of red fox living in the Western U.S.  They live high up (7000-10,000 ft.).   I suppose since I’m at 6800′ I could be seeing some very ancient ancestral foxes.

Fox on Beartooth Highway

A Beartooth fox at 10,000 feet

The Fox and the Study Area

I’ve been itching to start the rounds in my study area again, but winter hasn’t set in and so there is no consistent snow on the ground.  One day its’ 50 degrees, the next a few inches of snow that melts off.  Last winter I began in earnest a systemic, almost daily, investigation of a specific area near my home.  Using tracking methods, I plotted out where the martens lived, the size of an ermine’s territory, the population of squirrels and voles and deer mice.

Vole bound.  You can see it's tail drag

Vole bound. You can see it’s tail drag

I followed a resident cougar who lead me several times to the end of her trail where a pack of wolves obscured her tracks.  One time at the end of the trail lay a dead deer, maybe killed by the cougar who was driven off her prize by the wolves.


So I’ve been content to lay out a camera bait trap and see who’s around.  Hunting season is still on, but the general deer season is over here and the quotas for elk and deer are very limited for the next month or two.  The animals will start to come down within the next few weeks as the weather turns and the traffic subsides.

Trapping season has started .  There are a few people who trap martens here.  Bobcat trapping season begins on the 15th.  For these reasons, I would never reveal where my camera traps are set, nor where my study area is.

After a week, I went to check my camera trap and was surprised to see a beautiful fox.Here is the link for the fox video.  You can see she’s digging for the deer liver I set in a covered hole.

And a few stills


What a great tail

Red fox

Digging around for the deer liver treats I left

Another positive effect of having wolves in the valley is that they keep the coyote population under control, and by doing that, foxes are returning.  I’ve talked with some old timers here who told me that in all the time they lived here, they never saw foxes.  Yet I’ve seen them, or their sign, now every year. With fewer coyotes, there is room for foxes.

Fox on Beartooth Highway

Fox on Beartooth Highway

Using my study area last year, I began to notice the interrelationships of  wildlife.  Wildlife are all finely attuned to each other.  They know the comings and goings, the patterns of movement, the subtle changes. Even with this camera trap of covered meat, once the fox stole the food, the resident mother deer with her two fawns stopped bye and spent a long time smelling the empty hole and upturned dirt.  Then she walked over and looked at the camera.  Something was just not right for her.   I think she sensed this was a ‘human event’.

Nature is a dance, an interplay of relationships. As humans we’ve disconnected ourselves for so long from the dance that we are no longer  part of the music, no longer have a feeling for its rhythm.  My hope with this study area project is to wander again onto the dance floor and pick up, with some luck and intuition, a bit of the cadence and beat that wildlife so naturally swings to.