California DFG Investigates First Cases of Canine Distemper in Wild Desert Kit Foxes

   01.24.12

The Department of Fish and Game (DFG) is investigating the death of seven desert kit foxes from canine distemper in eastern Riverside County. These deaths, which occurred over the past two months, are the first documented cases of canine distemper in wild desert kit foxes. Wildlife officials want to determine if this is an isolated case or if the disease is more widespread.

The kit foxes were found 20 miles outside of Blythe on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and leased to Genesis Solar LLC to construct a utility-scale solar project. The animals were turned over to DFG’s wildlife investigations lab for testing. The necropsies determined that distemper was the cause of death, but it is not known how the foxes contracted the disease. Canine distemper can cycle naturally in wild carnivore populations, but can also be transmitted to and from domestic animals that come in contact with wildlife.

“Although we do not know if this outbreak was started by an infected domestic animal, it is important for people to vaccinate their pets regularly,” said DFG Wildlife Veterinarian Deana Clifford. “Vaccination will not only protect your pet but help protect wildlife populations from disease outbreaks.”

To better understand the extent of the disease, how it was contracted and how to prevent it, wildlife officials trapped, tested and tagged 39 foxes. Researchers also attached radio collars to 12 of these foxes in order to obtain health information for the study. These collars are equipped with a mortality signal that pulses twice as fast as normal if the animal has not moved for six hours. This allows researchers to detect a death and quickly recover the carcass. Biologist and volunteers will be using the radio signals and remote triggered cameras to monitor dens during the upcoming pupping season.

In addition, a subset of 27 kit foxes received a distemper vaccine and were released back into the wild. Researchers hope this vaccine, specifically developed for use in species that are very sensitive to the virus, will create an immune response in the desert kit fox population.

The desert kit fox, found in the southeastern deserts of California, can survive in dry climates because it obtains all its water from food sources. Its more northern relative, the San Joaquin kit fox, is listed as endangered under both state and federal endangered species acts due to loss of habitat and other factors.

“Even though the desert kit fox is not endangered, it is a uniquely adapted species that deserves monitoring and conservation attention,” said DFG Environmental Scientist Magdelena Rodriguez. “We are building strong relationships with our partner agencies and other stakeholders working in the desert to better conserve kit fox populations.”

DFG is coordinating its efforts with the California Energy Commission, who is the state permittee for the solar project, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Construction in the area has been temporarily halted, in part due to the kit fox distemper discovery.

“We are working closely with the company in an effort to avoid additional impacts to desert kit foxes in areas where construction is under way,” said BLM’s Palm Springs Field Manager John Kalish.

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