Red Alert: The Disappearing Fox

By Troy Hoepker

I could sense Bob peering over his reading glasses and looking at me much in the same way that my own Grandfather would do from time to time as we both would sit and read quietly. I knew that each of them were simply taking delight in the way that only old men do when they see a youth interested in reading and in particular, reading about the outdoors. Taking a break from his own magazine, Bob looked over at me from his chair and in his unmistakable voice broke the silence. “Would you like to take some of those home with you?” he asked, referring to the Fur-Fish-Game Magazines that I had been fingering through. “Yes, I would like that!” I replied enthusiastically. Bob made me a deal. I could take a few magazines home and once I had read them, I could bring them back and borrow a few more from his stack in the living room.

I’d pedal my bicycle less than a mile down that dusty gravel road between our farm and his and visit from time to time. Bob was a great neighbor. A small man in stature but with a booming voice that would match a man twice his size. He had lost his sweet wife years earlier and I sensed a bit of loneliness about him. I’d come to his door and we would sit and visit about school, the neighborhood, farming, and he would share with me many stories that I enjoyed so much. His sweet nature and sense of humor made the 60 years of age difference between us seem non-existent.

Years later out looking for coyotes, I would find myself driving down that same gravel road one snowy day when I spotted a red fox mousing in the hay field across the road from Bob’s old farm. I continued down the road and over the rise of the hill and slowed the pickup to a stop in Bob’s driveway, hiding it behind his old barn. Bob wasn’t home here any longer. He had passed years before and my cousin now owned the farm. I briefly toyed with the idea of actually hunting this fox? “Naw, there just weren’t many around.” I told myself, but I did decide to try and call it up anyway, just for the fun of it. I grabbed my gun, just in case I were to change my mind and hoofed it a short walk around the barn and sat down on the other side of Bob’s cattle corral.

Some high pitched peeping and waning seemed to always be the ticket to drawing in a nearby fox and this time was no different. After just a series or two he crossed the road and popped over the road ditch into the field in front of me; his red fur beautifully accentuated by the white snow in the background. In typical fox fashion, he meandered around, sniffing at the ground almost seemingly disinterested in what had brought him to that spot in the first place. Another short burst of distress jogged his short-term memory and he began closing the distance to 75 yards when once again he became sidetracked with another scent or sound in only the way a scatterbrained fox will do.

There wouldn’t be any blood spilt today from this red. He had a pass, but there would be reflection upon time spent with a kindly old man who had helped me develop a love for reading outdoor adventure stories like the ones on those pages of Fur-Fish-Game that maybe in some way, fostered the desire to someday write stories of my own as well. As I sat there watching that fox, I had no doubt Bob was looking down upon me as I sat on his farm smiling just the way old men do at the sight of me calling in this fox.

That fox might have called that old barn a home? Over the years, I saw signs of them living in the neighborhood barns, hay patches, and cedar groves, but all of those structures are gone now. Including Bob’s acreage along with our farm up the road where I grew up and with them, gone too seem to be the fox of that area. That scene has been a reoccurring theme in Iowa’s farmland all over the state. If you are old enough to have been an avid outdoorsman or grew up in the rural areas as far back as even the 1980’s or even the early 90’s, than you can remember a time when seeing fox was common. Prior to that they were even more populated as Iowa’s most dominant predator. Iowa’s fox population has gone from plentiful to pitiful since then and I surely do miss them. Where have they all gone? What has led to their disappearance and their struggle to survive in Iowa’s farmlands?

Loss of diverse habitat such as grasslands, the rise of a strong coyote population across Iowa which is something we didn’t have 50 years ago and mange are all things Vince Evelsizer, Furbearer & Wetland Biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources pointed to as key reasons as to why fox populations have declined for better than a decade. “The coyote population has been on a fairly steady trend upward for the past 30 years; while the red fox has mostly trended downward.

Our harvest trends for fox and coyotes show this, as well as the bowhunter observation survey. It’s mainly a competition thing. Coyotes will try to kill or run off red fox when the opportunity arises. If we had a breeding population of gray wolves in our state, then coyotes would be killed or run off because they’d no longer be top dog.” On top of that, continued Evelsizer, “Coyotes are better adapted at living in all types of habitat across our state whether it’s good or poor, while red fox need good habitat to prosper. Coyotes are less effected by mange than red fox and mange mortality rates for red fox are higher too, so this contributes to tipping the scale in favor of more coyotes than red fox in Iowa.”

Historically speaking the red and gray fox populations of Iowa have fluctuated quite abruptly over the last 85 years. There have been other times of extremely low population trends yet the resilient fox has always rebounded. Red fox populations reached an all time low harvest record in the 1958-59 season of just 1,147 animals. Only a short decade later harvest numbers would show an all time high of 27,661. The Iowa DNR has collected harvest data for furbearer species from licensed fur dealers in Iowa each year since 1930. Harvest data such as this indicates trends in population abundance and over time shows a retrospective look at the status of various furbearer populations. Since that record high of red fox of the 1968-69 season, populations remained steady throughout the Seventies and through the Mid-Eighties but have steadily dropped off ever since. The 2009-2010 winter saw a harvest of only 1,792.

Red fox typically have 4-6 kits per litter although they can have more while gray fox usually have 3-4 per litter. Foxes have the same unexplainable characteristic as the coyote. They are able to produce larger litters in times of lower populations with abundant food. This is one reason why the fox population has been able to be so resilient and rebound in numbers after periods of low numbers. Mange is a second variable. Evelsizer pointed out that mortality from mange is higher in red fox than in coyotes. In years where mange is wide spread, fox suffer more. The fur market has historically played a role as well but generally has no serious impact on fox numbers. Hunters and trappers will obviously target fox more at times when their fur demands a high price. In the late Seventies for example, a good fox pelt could sell for as much as $70 or more. The mean price dropped considerably throughout the Eighties and Nineties to very low prices and in recent years has rebounded to the $35 range.

The stronghold that the coyote possesses over the landscape may very well be the most indicative cause of the red fox decline in Iowa. Coyote population trends over time have soared and inversely fox abundance has declined. The actual science of the coyote/fox relationship is hard to get a grasp on. That is to say, would a coyote go out of its way to kill a fox? Maybe, maybe not. In certain circumstances it’s been documented that coyotes have indeed targeted foxes. They’ve been known to kill a fox that is caught in a leghold trap. Coyotes are extremely territorial and likely have little patience for any other canine in their core area. While there are no studies that confirm coyote predation as a cause for limiting or decreasing other predator populations, studies do indicate that coyotes can displace foxes and there is an inverse relationship between the abundance of coyotes and foxes.

When coyote and fox share the same habitat, they also share the same prey species of that area and compete over their dietary share. Prey availability is a major factor in determining a predator’s use of an area. The number of predators versus the number of prey in a given area results in competition for the resource. So even while a coyote may not go out of its way to kill a fox, it may displace it from the territory by continually running it off.

Studies of radio collared coyotes and foxes cohabitating in the same area generally show that fox territories are located on the edges or outside of coyote territories. Sightings of fox in the middle of traditional farmland sections in Iowa are not as common as they once were. Instead, fox have increasingly been drawn to areas of human habitations where coyotes are low in numbers. We see fox on a regular basis living in or on the edges of small towns, large cities, or acreages. My wife and son had a rather odd urban fox encounter one morning as they were getting ready for school when we used to live in town. Right there up on our deck was a red fox peering thru the sliding glass window into the kitchen as if to be wandering what was for breakfast. We also see fox denning in roadside ditches and under outbuildings where humans are near and where coyotes won’t kill their young. Unfortunately for the fox, denning and travel near roads also result in higher numbers of road kill foxes. Sadly, I’ve witnessed dozens of fox splattered on the highway right near their den site over the years.

The red fox population seems to be more abundant in the central part of the state according to Evelsizer, but there are small pockets of higher populations throughout the state. Gray fox are more populated in the Southeast portion of the state. Gray fox prefer woodland habitat and there is more of that on the eastern half of the state. Evelsizer added more info on the gray fox status in Iowa as well.

“There’s not a lot known about the gray fox in the Midwest in terms of factors affecting their population. Like so many of our furbearers, they’re secretive. We’ve never had a huge population of gray fox in Iowa, with some of the higher harvests peaking at just over 3,000 in the late 1970s.  Since the late 1990s, the gray fox harvest went on a fairly steady downward trend indicating their population went on a downward trend as well. Unfortunately, in the last few years their population is quite likely at an all-time low. However, Iowa harvest records do show wide swings up and down with gray fox over the years going back to the 1930s, so time will tell if they’re truly in trouble throughout the Midwest or if they’ll rebound again. Research into Midwest gray fox population factors has been initiated. Iowa is one of the Midwest states participating in this study. Right now it is primarily genetics work. I would estimate 99% of Iowa’s trappers and predator hunters do not target gray fox when trapping, so at this time anyway, I don’t believe we’d gain anything significant to close the season on gray fox. The main factors affecting the gray fox population decline are largely unknown at this time, but trapping/hunting is not the reason. It is likely a change or a combination of changes at the landscape level throughout the Midwest that is causing it. Also, it’s interesting to note that gray fox are doing just fine population-wise in the southeastern U.S. and other parts of the U.S. outside of the cornbelt.” Evelsizer said.

Gray fox numbers in Iowa have always been relatively low but the last few years of harvest reports from licensed fur dealers show the extreme population dip as almost unprecedented in the report’s 85-year history. 2013-2014 reports showed only 16 animals being handled by fur dealers statewide.

Hunting and trapping red fox is certainly not going to lead to their demise in Iowa and the intent of this article is not to discourage anyone from doing so but rather to shed light on why we see less of them as we hunt and trap. Enjoy hunting them. Enjoy trapping them. And enjoy seeing them whenever you get the opportunity.