A conservation group on Wednesday asked the federal government to protect the Sierra Nevada red fox under the Endangered Species Act, a move that may have broad effects on land management.
The petition came from the Center for Biological Diversity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now has 90 days to review the petition, and then 12 months to make a ruling.
The Sierra Nevada red fox is one of the rarest mammals in North America. Until recently, only a few dozen were known to exist at Lassen Volcanic National Park.
But in August, U.S. Forest Service biologists found a handful more than 200 miles away, near Sonora Pass, a discovery later confirmed through genetic tests.
The fox once existed throughout the Sierra Nevada, but its numbers were decimated by trapping, logging and development.
"It's really important to create a network of habitats, not just to prevent extinction, but to facilitate recovery," said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaign director at the center.
He said protections could affect logging practices, because the fox may depend on old-growth forest characteristics, especially in winter. Livestock grazing could also be affected, because the rodents and small mammals that are prey for the fox may be negatively affected by grazing.
The timber and cattle industries are likely to oppose such protections for the fox.
Climate change may also become a factor, because the fox generally lives only above 7,000 feet a habitat that may shrink as temperatures warm.
The fox, which weighs only about 10 pounds, has been a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act since 1980.
"That it's still in such a perilous situation really underscores the need for federal protections," McKinnon said.
He acknowledged more research is needed to understand threats to the species, a fact also highlighted by Ben Sacks, a canine expert and ecologist at UC Davis.
Genetic testing by Sacks verified three Sierra Nevada red foxes in the Sonora Pass area of Tuolumne and Mono counties. One was hit by a car and killed over the winter on Highway 395, he said. It was a young female that probably died while dispersing to establish its own home territory.
Sacks suspects there are more foxes in the area.
"I don't think there's any question that it's biologically endangered, and that it's a very small population," said Sacks. "The most critical need is to learn more about the species. We honestly don't know the threats."