January 26, 2012

Kit foxes fall victim to distemper near new solar site

State, feds team to find source; construction not affected
A desert kit fox warms itself in the sun near its burrow. California Department of Fish and Game is investigating the deaths of seven desert kit foxes in the past two months near the Genesis solar project near Blythe. The deaths are the first documented cases of canine distemper in wild desert kit foxes. (BLM)

Written by K Kaufmann
The Desert Sun

An outbreak of canine distemper among desert kit foxes near the Genesis solar project off Interstate 10 east of the Coachella Valley has triggered a state and federal investigation to find the cause of the disease and protect the animals near all solar projects in the region.

Since last October, a total of seven kit foxes dead or dying of the disease have been found on or near the Genesis site, said Deana Clifford, a wildlife veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Game.

The deaths are the first documented cases of canine distemper in wild desert kit foxes, she said.

“What we've seen, they are declining very quickly and don't appear to live very long,” Clifford said.

Two kit foxes suffering from distemper were rushed to The Living Desert in Palm Desert in November and December, respectively, she said.

“The first animal was brought from the Blythe area and died before it got it here,” said Dr. Kevin Leiske, staff veterinarian at The Living Desert, which does not have kit foxes in captivity.

“The second animal was comatose and near death when it arrived and the only humane course of action was to euthanize the animal. Canine distemper is a devastating disease. The only true prevention is vaccination.”

Considered one of the desert's unique species, kit foxes can survive in dry climates because they get all their water from food. The animals are not endangered, but are a focus for wildlife conservation efforts, Fish and Game officials said.

A virus causes canine distemper, which affects both domestic and wild animals. Puppies, if not vaccinated, are particularly vulnerable, Clifford said.

It affects the animals' breathing and digestive system, causing coughing, diarrhea and dehydration, as well as brain swelling and seizures, she said.

It can cycle naturally through wild canine populations, she said, but also can be transmitted to and from domestic animals that come in contact with wildlife.

Trapping, tagging

In response to the outbreak, Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management have launched an investigation involving the trapping, tagging and vaccinating 39 kit foxes.

Earlier this month, they trapped foxes at four sites over a 10,000-acre area between NextEra Energy's Genesis — 20 miles west of Blythe — and Desert Sunlight in Desert Center and near the site of the Colorado substation south of I-10.

The outbreak may have briefly slowed construction on both sites as Clifford ordered the developers to halt activity near active kit fox burrows and to create wide buffer zones around them.

It's too early to say if there is any connection between the outbreak and the disruption of the fox habitat by the solar projects, she said.

“Habitat disturbance can cause stress and when animals are stressed, they may be more vulnerable to the disease,” Clifford said.

A nearby I-10 rest stop where people stop and let their dogs run could be another possible source of the virus, she said.

To find out, disease samples from the dead animals has been sent to Cornell University in New York, where experts will try to identify the particular strain of distemper and its possible origin, she said.

Distemper, like other viruses, can have different strains and some may be “hotter,” more virulent, than others, Clifford said.

Meanwhile, onsite biologists at both projects are monitoring 12 kit foxes that now wear radio collars, Clifford said. If an animal stops moving for more than six hours — a sign it may be sick or dead — the collar emits more beeps, she said.

The other 27 foxes were given a distemper vaccine deemed safe for wild animals. More animals would have been tagged, but the radio collars were not available, she said, and with the foxes going into their breeding period — which runs through May — the effort had to be organized quickly.

“We have been very proactive and cooperative working with the BLM and Department of Fish and Game; we have followed the agency directives,” said Steve Stengel, a NextEra spokesman.

Construction on the site is continuing with no major disruptions, he said.

“There are no visual signs of distemper in any of the kit foxes on the Desert Sunlight project site at this point, so we are encouraged by that,” said Alan Bernheimer, a spokesman for First Solar, the Arizona company building that project.

Genesis and Desert Sunlight are the only two solar projects under construction in the Riverside East solar zone, a swath of public land stretching from Joshua Tree National Park to Blythe.

As the investigation continues, Clifford sees the lack of extensive knowledge about desert kit foxes in general as a major challenge.

“We don't have a lot of details about the state of their health, their population, their ecology,” she said.

“I hope this will provide momentum to do some nice work on desert kit foxes.”

Ensuring all domestic canines get distemper vaccinations is also important in helping protect kit foxes and other wild animals.

“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,” she said.

About kit foxes

The desert kit fox lives in the deserts, though other kit foxes live in arid lands of western North America.

In the U.S., the foxes' habitats can be found from Southern California to western Colorado and western Texas, north into southern Oregon and Idaho.

The mostly nocturnal, burrowing canines, which typically weigh six pounds or less, also live in Mexico and mostly eat small animals. Source: California Department of Fish and Game