There seems to be a large red fox population in the region around Nuiqsut, Alaska. When I last traveled there for work, I counted 5 red fox during a 1.5 hour-long car ride. Nuiqsut residents have told me that red fox weren't always in the region but have grown in number recently. I've also heard from locals that the red fox prey on the endemic arctic fox and are decimating their numbers.
I have a few questions: Why has the red fox population seemingly exploded in the Arctic? Has there been a significant decrease in arctic fox populations in recent years? If so, is the decline due to predation? Lastly, can red fox contract rabies by preying on arctic fox with the disease?
Consult by Martha Itta:
The red fox population has been a big problem in Nuiqsut. Residents are worried about them coming in closer to the community and how they are interacting with dogs—whether rabies will be a problem. They do notice the field workers have been feeding the red fox, even when there are rules against feeding them. Martha Itta, Native Village of Nuiqsut
In general bite wounds are the main route of transmission of rabies. While feeding on an infected carcass can theoretically lead to infection, fighting is likely much more important in spreading the disease between animals, including from arctic to red foxes. Fox populations in the North are very cyclical and large shifts in population numbers are normal. This population cycling is likely driven by prey availability and disease outbreaks during high population years. Reports on population increases of red foxes in Alaska are mostly anecdotal and linked to human development that can provide food for the larger red fox, especially in winter.
Rabies is enzootic in both fox populations, meaning there is always a certain level of rabies in the population. Caution should be taken in any human or pet interactions with either fox species, especially with the increasing population. Rabies is spread by saliva contact with infected animals, so a red fox getting bitten by a rabid Arctic fox while fighting (or vice versa) can spread the disease. Additionally, animals may contract the disease by eating infected animals, especially if they are exposed to the saliva or central nervous system. Source: eXtension.
Comments from LEO Editors:
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Red Fox Species Profile, red fox (Vulpes vulpes) can be found across Alaska, except for some islands in Southeast and in the western Aleutians. In a 2016 article for the Anchorage Daily News, Yereth Rosen writes that red foxes have become more common along the North Slope since the 1980s. UAF biologists found that the northward expansion of the red fox may correspond with the development of the North Slope oil industry, allowing the red fox to take advantage of garbage and other refuse along roads and in landfills. In analysis of both red fox and Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus) diets, researchers found that summer diets remained dependent on natural sources. However, human food (chemically identified by the presence of corn) was found to be a significant component in winter diets, reaching an average of 39% of diet for Arctic foxes and about 50% of diet for red foxes.
In areas inhabited by both red and Arctic foxes, the red fox is the dominant species. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Red Fox Species Profile they have been observed digging-up Arctic foxes from their dens and killing them or keeping the den for themselves. This dominant behavior of red foxes has also been observed in similar Russian latitudes, and is described in a 2011 article by Ella Davis for BBC Earth News. It is suspected that the availability of preferred red fox habitat is expanding with increasing temperatures in northern regions, so red foxes now have the opportunity to inhabit areas that were previously only habitable by Arctic foxes. The expanded habitat range may increase the frequency of interaction between the two species, which could have implications for Arctic fox population abundance. Elizabeth Lindley
This observation was shared with the Native Village of Nuiqsut and the North Slope Borough Wildlife Department.