Sam Ribakoff

(CN) — The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Department of the Interior on Thursday to grant the little-known Sierra Nevada red fox protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Equipped with thick coats and furry feet to live in snowy high elevations, Sierra Nevada red foxes used to live in a range stretching from the southern Sierra Nevada in California all the way up to the Mount Hood in the Oregon Cascades.

But hunting and trapping, wildfires, coyote predation, logging, livestock grazing, disease, low genetic diversity, and encroachment by human development and the recreation industry have shrank their population down to small pockets in one area in the Sierra Nevada, one in Lassen Peak in the Cascades, one in Crater Lake National Park, one in the central Oregon Cascades, and one on Mount Hood.

There are likely less than 30 foxes in all of California.

“These precious mountain foxes need our help if they’re going to have any chance at survival in our rapidly warming world,” Noah Greenwald, the center’s endangered species director, said in a statement.

The foxes were granted endangered species protection in California under the state’s Endangered Species Act in 1980, which makes it illegal to trap them. But if the petition with the federal government is granted, trapping them in Oregon will also be made illegal.

Since almost all of the foxes' habitats are on federal land, if the petition is granted, the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service will be required to make sure their habitat isn’t adversely affected. It would also require the federal government to come up with a recovery plan for the foxes.

After years of back and forth with the federal government and threats of lawsuits, the Sierra Nevada population of foxes was put on the endangered species list. But the other four populations were grouped together into a single population by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — a decision the center said is insufficient to protect the foxes.

“The service must act promptly to protect this species and to designate critical habitat in order to prevent its extinction and protect its disappearing habitat,” the center says in its petition.

The center contends that trail extensions and increased recreation development and visitors to national parks and national forests in Oregon since the Covid-19 pandemic have endangered the habitats and range of the foxes who live in those parks and forests, along with the danger of the animals being run over by cars, climate change, an increase in the intensity of fires, and a warming climate that brings coyotes into their territories.

“The harms we’re doing to the natural world are accumulating and interacting in complex ways to the detriment of animals like the Sierra Nevada red fox,” Greenwald said. “Historic killing of predators, including wolves and the fox, have left the fox vulnerable to coyotes and risks inherent to small populations. And now, increased interest in outdoor recreation and global warming represent new and growing threats to the fox.”

In an email, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said the petition will be reviewed once it’s processed