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

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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