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Kit Foxes and Coyotes Clash in Utah's West Desert

New science from Utah State University examined the relationship between kit foxes, coyotes, and water in Utah’s western deserts.

Kit foxes are one of the smallest foxes in North America. Their exceptionally large ears help them dissipate body heat in their desert environment, to which they are well-adapted. Encounters between kit foxes and coyotes are usually fatal for the kit fox.

“1960s studies suggested that kit foxes were the “big boy” on the block as far as numbers in certain portions of the Great Basin Desert, they were the most abundant carnivore on the landscape. To the same end, there was some evidence to suggest that coyotes were relatively rare on the landscape during that particular time and place. Fast-forward a few decades into the 1990s and some research done at Dugway Proving Ground and the surrounding areas showed that the tables had apparently turned and that coyotes had become the most abundant canid on the landscape, to somewhat the detriment of kit foxes.”

A "guzzler"

Dr. Bryan Kluever, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Army Fort Carson Military Installation in Colorado Springs, recently published a new study in the Journal of Arid Environments testing the hypothesis that the addition of wildlife water developments, or “guzzlers”, was the primary cause of the increase in coyote abundance. Although a coyote requires several times as much water as a kit fox of the same size, Kluever’s study found that coyotes did not actually spend much time around the guzzlers. Instead, they credit changes in coyote management strategies in the area, although it’s difficult to say whether harvesting coyotes in fact affects their numbers. Kit foxes and coyotes have coexisted in the Great Basin for millions of years before humans came on the scene.

“Claims that kit foxes were the most abundant carnivore and coyotes were hanging on by a thread were really largely based on anecdotes rather than data driven models, so it’s always a possibility too that this phenomenon has a little bit been blown out of proportion but we just don’t know because we just don’t have the data.”

Advances in wildlife science since the 1960s include motion-sensor cameras, radio-telemetry, and mark-recapture models that account for imperfect detection. As the west continues to dry out, scientists may be able to refine studies of desert-adapted species like kit foxes.