MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – After years of decline, the red fox appears to be returning in northern New England, according to wildlife experts.
Hurt for years by rabies, distemper and competition from coyotes, the animals are being seen in greater numbers this year in Vermont and New Hampshire. There are no hard figures to support the population growth, but summer is the peak season for seeing red foxes because they hunt full-time to provide food for their young, experts say.
“There are a lot of people who see a fox out in the daytime and think there has to be something wrong with it,” said Vermont Game Warden David Gregory, of Lyndon Center. “That’s not true. They feed on grasshoppers (among other things) and they’re not going to get them at night,” said Gregory, who traps foxes in the fall and winter.
In Maine, the red fox population is stable.
There was a slight increase in the number of pelts harvested this year, but it wasn’t enough of a change to indicate a trend, according to Wally Jakubas, a wildlife biologist who oversees the mammal program for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Kim Royar, a furbearer biologist for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the state gets a lot of calls from people concerned that the foxes they see could have rabies, distemper or some other disease.
“If they move away and look healthy, they’re probably OK,” she said.
There are conflicts between humans and foxes, when the animals prey on chickens, house cats, or eat pet food left outside, officials said.
Businessman Karl Hammer, who keeps about 1,200 chickens and roosters on his 50-acre property on the edge of Montpelier, says he hasn’t noticed any shortage.
“We’re a destination culinary resort for foxes,” said Hammer. He says there was a time when foxes seemed ill and mangy. Now, they seem healthier, according to Hammer, who protects his poultry with a combination of roosters, dogs and sometimes guns.
Last year, he shot six foxes.
Vermont has populations of both red foxes and gray foxes. The red foxes tend to live in open land; gray foxes live in forested areas.
“They will eat just about anything,” Royar said. “They’ll eat berries, they’ll eat apples. They’ll eat small mammals.”
Gray foxes have smaller noses and can climb trees, Royar said.
State Public Health Veterinarian Bob Johnson said a strain of fox rabies that sweeps the state every 10 to 20 years from Canada has passed, although foxes do still occasionally catch rabies.
“Perhaps 80 percent of the fox population bit the dust between 1992 and 1996,” said Johnson.
There have been no formal studies of fox populations. Rather, experts say they’ve noticed more calls from the public about foxes.
“The number of complaints have increased,” said John McConnell, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who handles complaints about interactions between wildlife and people in Vermont and New Hampshire.
“I can, in general terms, support (the increase) in terms of sightings, reports and complaints to our office about foxes around houses, depredation activities to chickens or missing pets,” McConnell said.
Gary Nohrenberg, the director of the wildlife service’s Vermont office, said he hadn’t noticed any significant change in the number of fox calls, but it’s common to see them during the day.
“They are very curious, especially the young pups,” Nohrenberg said. “They become acclimated to people and will be curious like a lot of other animals and will watch what’s going on.”