2011 Mt St Helens and the Dark Divide

This summer a crew of two - Polly Gibson from Portland, Oregon and Darryl Johnson from Corvallis, Oregon - conducted remote camera surveys on Mt St Helens and the Dark Divide Roadless Area to investigate whether the Cascade red fox exists in these areas. The Dark Divide remains one of the most remote parts of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, receiving very few visitors. The dirt bike access and rutted trails ensure less hikers than many other parts of the forest. The Dark Divide is characterized by picturesque steep ridges and rocky outcrops that jut above treeline as ambling, grassy knolls. Their berry-clad slopes descend precipitously into thick forest ending in large streams that flow north to the Cispus River and south to the Lewis River, one of the major streams that drains Mt Adams. There are many ideal spots for a fox to make its home along the flat-topped ridges; good denning and foraging habitat. The Dark Divide is a high-elevation piece of land that connects Mt Adams to Mt St Helens, and may serve as a corridor for dispersal between the two mountains if foxes do indeed inhabit Mt St Helens. This is one of the major questions posed by my doctoral research. Mt St Helens is rather different from Mt Adams. It lost most of its alpine habitat by the 1980 eruption, and the former dense mid-elevation boreal-type forest is now blow down that has created an open, alpine-style landscape. Whether the habitat characteristics that the fox depends upon in the alpine ecosystem of Mt Adams exist in this alpine-esque lower elevation space is unknown. If the fox does inhabit Mt St Helens, its presence there will provide a better understanding of these specific habitat requirements, such as snowpack thickness, canopy cover, and presence of predators and competitors such as the coyote. Our forty cameras set over a two month period this summer did not yield a single photograph of a fox. However much habitat remains to be surveyed within the volcanic monument and we will return this winter for snow tracking to continue our efforts there. And we did collect an impressive set of photographs of many of the usual carnivore suspects, such as this inquisitive black bear in Sheep Canyon on the southwest side of the volcano.

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