Gretchen Kay Stuart remembers the first time she saw a Cascade red fox.
It was June 2020, and Mount Rainier National Park had just reopened. Stuart was driving up the road to Paradise when she saw a "big fluff of tail" on a snowbank.
The Cascade red fox is currently under consideration to be listed as threatened or endangered by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
When Stuart, a photographer, saw the small, white, cross-phase fox that June day, she pulled over to take photos. Another car stopped, and before Stuart could say anything, the driver rolled down the window and dropped potato chips on the ground.
A ranger came around the corner and reprimanded the driver as the fox scurried away.
"I immediately knew there's this unique-looking fox in the Cascades and there's a feeding problem with tourists, and it just sparked my curiosity," she said.
That fox, Stuart later learned, was known among biologists as Whitefoot, and was a member of a rare native subspecies of the red fox that lives only in the Cascade Range in Washington.
Since that initial encounter, Stuart said, it has become her mission to raise awareness about the little-known species.
Stuart said she often hikes through remote subalpine environments collecting scat and hair samples as a citizen scientist for the science conservation group Cascades Carnivore Project and looking for foxes to photograph. In the two-plus years Stuart has spent searching for them, she has seen five different Cascade red foxes.
The Cascade red fox is among 70 or so Washington species, including birds, fish and insects, currently under consideration for endangered, threatened or sensitive status.
Hannah Anderson, WDFW's wildlife diversity division manager, said the commissioners will review the Cascade red fox's status in September.
A February draft report by WDFW recommended listing Cascade red foxes as a threatened species.
Knowledge about the current biology and ecology of the species is limited, according to the report. The foxes live at high subalpine elevations. Historically, fur trappers have noted the fox all along the Cascade Range and in southern British Columbia; in recent years, however, the fox has been detected only in the South Cascades below the I-90 corridor.
No historical or current estimates exist for the total population, though wildlife biologist Jocelyn Akins, co-author of the draft report, estimates there are only 200 in the South Cascades region, fewer above I-90 and none left in British Columbia. Akins, who founded the Cascades Carnivore Project, said many of these foxes are inbred genetically, a sign of their declining population.
Akins said the species has been overlooked, and she became aware of them only in 2008 when she was trying to detect wolverines on Mount Adams with wildlife cameras. In the middle of the brutal winter, Akins said, she saw "these beautiful foxes," often black or red in the white landscape.
Akins later learned the only other scientist who had studied the subspecies had done so over 30 years ago in a dissertation for the University of California.
There are two other red fox subspecies, the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain red fox, Akins said. The Cascade red fox is suffering a plight similar to that of the Sierra Nevada red fox, which is currently federally recognized as an endangered species.
Threats to the species could include climate change decreasing their habitat, visitors feeding the foxes in national parks or an invasion of other non-native red foxes into their region, the report said.
Gaining threatened status from the state will raise awareness of the species among wildlife managers and possibly open additional funds for research, Akins said. It would also be the first step to gaining federal threatened or endangered status, which would result in more conservation resources, she said.
"We have all sorts of ideas and hypotheses about what threatens them, and we haven't been able to put out much research to really tease apart the possible threads," she said.
The species is one of the top predators in the mountains and is important to keeping the population of small mammals in check, she said.