Red Foxes, with their distinctive white pointed tails, roam most areas of the Jackson Hole valley.
The bulk of the visitors to Grand Teton National Park come here in the late Spring, Summer, and Fall, seasons. Foxes are around, of course, but aren’t seen that often by the average tourist. I believe there are several factors. Foxes are usually hunting very early and very late—and that’s not the same time of day the average tourist is roaming the valley. Much of the year, single Foxes only need to catch enough food for their own needs that day, then can rest and sleep the day away until they are hungry again.
When the Vixen is in the den with her new Kits, she seldom leaves for long periods. In reality, half of the Fox population is out of sight altogether for a month and a half or so. As the Kits grow and begin appearing near the den’s entrance, news typically spreads quickly. The Park Service puts up “Do Not Enter” yellow tape around the den area. Adults come and go, hunting often to feed the youngsters. That’s probably the best time for Summer visitors to see scruffy adult Foxes and cute little Kits. Winter visitors probably have a better chance of seeing Foxes with their stunningly beautiful coats!
Winter Foxes have beautiful, flowing coats. Days are much shorter, so odds go up that you might see them hunting and moving about. Sometimes, they find a sunny spot and curl up for long periods— hiding in plain sight!
Winter visitors also have an advantage of shooting almost eye level with Foxes. Snow banks can be four to five feet high in some areas. With less tourists around, they seem more relaxed and less likely to flee into the forests.
Summer Foxes are typically scruffy as they shed Winter fur and replace it with short, sleek fur. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t see them too often other times of the year. They are forced to hunt more during daylight hours when trying to feed 4-6 Kits. By the time the kits are weaned, they seem to disappear again.
Foxes: In General
Foxes are canines, but display some cat like qualities. For example, I’ve never seen a Coyote or Wolf willingly walk down a buck rail fence, but I’ve seen lots of Foxes do it.
At least to my eyes, Foxes eyes remind me more of a cat than a Coyote, Wolf, or dog. While they occasionally bark to notify their mate they are in the area, they are typically much more quiet.
I wrote this page to highlight my experiences and observations. I’m “just a photographer”—and not a biologist! You can read more about Foxes by doing Internet searches and through the numerous books in the local bookstores. Check out this page: Red Fox – National Wildlife Federation
From what I’ve read, all of our Foxes are “Red Foxes”—regardless of whether they are mostly blonde, red, gray, cross, or black. They all feature a white tipped tail. Gray Foxes may also have color variations, but have black tipped tails. You might relate the color variances in Foxes to Black Bears that can be blonde, cinnamon, brown, or black.
In most cases, Coyotes and Wolves shy away from humans. Outside the Park, Coyotes can be shot as a pest without a license. Wolves that stray into area cattle ranches can be shot, too. Coyotes and Wolves can kill Foxes, so they tend to fill voids left by the two larger canines. Wolves often kill game animals, feed for a day or two, then move on. Coyotes and Foxes move in on the carcass, but Foxes move out of the zone when Coyotes are present. That’s when Foxes are in “scavenger mode”. Otherwise, Coyotes and Foxes hunt mice, pocket gophers, voles, and ground squirrels. Last year, I watched a Cross Fox that specialized in catching ducks. In other areas, Foxes can become adept at stalking and catching upland game birds.
I mentioned earlier that Foxes fill in voids left by human fearing Coyotes and Wolves. That’s another way of suggesting that Foxes are often found around humans and human activity. In short, they are usually safer around humans than their wild canine counterparts. They are plenty adept at scavenging a carcass and capturing small prey, but they are also smart enough to recognize a free meal when it’s offered. Foxes are also smart enough to recognize human habits and patterns—showing up a the right time for handouts. (More on that issue later in the page)
Foxes can show up near campgrounds, visitor’s centers, gas stations, employee housing zones, and in towns. Dens can be found in culverts, under porches, under the corner of a barn, or in holes in back yard settings. Within Grand Teton National Park, populations of Foxes have been seen regularly at Flagg Ranch, Colter Bay, Signal Mountain, and the Teton Science School. Around the valley, they are fairly common in the towns of Wilson, Jackson, and Kelly. I am sure some are regulars on the Buffalo Valley Road, and around Slide Lake.
Karnes Meadow Foxes
Prior to 2008, I had only random chances to photograph them, but in 2008, a Vixen set up shop in Karnes Meadows, not far from the Snow King Avenue. The den was only about 30 feet from the sidewalk! For several weeks, dozens of photographers lined up for their chance to watch a family of Red Foxes.
If I remember correctly, the Karnes Meadow Fox raised five Kits that year. I don’t recall ever seeing the adult male helping her raise the Karnes Meadow Kits.
Initially, the Kits stayed inside the den while she was away, but they became braver as they got older. One day, we came back to the spot and they were gone. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few other dens, but none as close, nor as photogenic as that group. As you might expect, I took thousands of photos of the family and it kindled a desire to continue looking for them.
The Area Foxes
In 2016, a “Cross Fox” showed up along the Moose-Wilson Road. That fox was comfortable with people around, but never appeared to be expecting a hand out. She (some people suggested it was a male) hunted for voles, as most Foxes do, but she also developed the necessary skills to capture ducks that winter in the small spring creeks along the roadway.
I always thought a Cross Fox was a cross between a Red Fox and a Black Fox, but a Best of the Tetons reader (thanks Michael), let me know the name reverences a cross pattern across the Fox’s back. In March of last year, I made a Feature Post called “The Cross Fox of GTNP“. That post has more photos of this fox, plus a lot more information about Cross Foxes.
The 2016 Cross Fox had a lot of personality, along with a couple of missing teeth, a large scar on its muzzle, and a cut in it’s right ear.
Late in the year, there were reports of this Fox showing up at one of the residences near Teton Village. Unfortunately, it had a broken leg. We heard of attempts to capture it, but I never heard of any positive results. It hasn’t been seen since.
Photographing Foxes isn’t much different than photographing other animals. We still face issues of stopping action with shutter speed, depth of field with aperture settings, and dealing with resulting high ISO and digital grain. Unless people are accustomed to photographing subjects in snow, Winter can require a bit of adjusting within the camera. Many Winter images will need up to a full stop of EV compensation, otherwise images with a high percentage of white will be underexposed. Yes, you can still adjust the Exposure slider in your favorite RAW converter, but I much prefer getting it right in the camera to avoid excessive noise in the dark areas.
If you can find cooperative Foxes (or any animal for that matter), you will likely fill a card with numerous “good, but average” photos of them standing, sitting, sleeping, or casually walking from spot to spot. Everybody eventually collects lots of them—but they are “just Fox photos”.
While we still take the basic shots, I have four or five “catch words” loaded into the back of my brain, just waiting for the right opportunity. I am watching for “action and interaction”, along with “personality and behavior”. Lastly, I know that not all images need to be up close and personal. Wide shots that include more of the animal’s surroundings or the weather conditions many tell a bigger story. These kinds of events happen on a daily basis, but not always with photographers there to capture the moment.
A Fox can sleep for hours! Even in their most lazy modes, they can be photogenic.
Once a Fox wakes up from a long nap, they almost always stretch. It’s not fast action, but it’s action!
Foxes are usually quick to react to another fox or a dog in the area. They can go from a stretch to a run in seconds.
Foxes spend a lot of time moving from spot to spot in search of food. On bright days, Foxes tend to squint A LOT! It takes at least some skill and a lot of luck to capture that split second while their eyes are open. Since I have a lot of images in which their eyes are open now, I usually delete the ones with squinted eyes.
A shot like this can catch most people off guard. I’ve missed a lot of them, too! They seem docile and sluggish and then can burst into a dead sprint. Luckily, winter shots allow me to keep the shutter speeds fast. (1/1250 second or faster)
Occasionally, you will find a Fox “mousing”. This kind of action is much more predictable. They will likely be in “mousing” mode for a while, so you just have to be ready when they stop, and prepare to pounce. I composited this shot from a burst of images, taken at a long distance near Kelly Warm Springs. In reality, a Fox jumps high into the air, and then into the snow to capture a mouse or vole only a couples of yards out.
Interaction can be between two animals of the same species, or by more than one species.
Occasionally, a third party can enter the scene.
It would be difficult to predict how two different species will react. On this day, the Skunk stood its ground and even chased the fox. Still, the Fox appeared to be more curious than scared of the smaller critter.
Zoom lenses are great for such encounters. It is easy to pull back on the zoom to include two animals. Surprisingly, the Skunk charged the Fox, catching it off guard.
Up close and personal! This was a fun day, probably not to be repeated anytime soon. I happened to be the only photographer around that day, so I came home with unique behavioral and action shots. We all wait and hope for similar experiences. In the end, no fur flew, though there was a pungent odor lingering in the air for hours.
I tend to like these kinds of shots the best, but it takes a lot of discipline to get them. With a 150-600mm lens, I often have choices if I tell myself to take advantage of the situation.
These kinds of shots are harder to get, but are typically more memorable and tell of a much larger story.
This would be a nice shot of just a fox, but the addition of the Mallard Duck feathers makes it special, at least to me.
I mentioned earlier that news of a Fox den travels quickly through the valley. Inside the Park, expect the area to be cordoned off to give the parents and kids room to move around and play. A Vixen can give birth to a litter of kits with a variety of color variations.
The Kits are usually active and extremely fun to watch, but are quick to return to their underground den at any hint of danger.
I’ve seen a dozen or two dens over the years. Most are dug in a hole in the ground, while some take advantage of a porch or corner of a barn. Interestingly, I’ve never seen them use the same den twice. It probably does happen somewhere? I’ve heard of Coyotes moving their babies to a new den if the first one becomes flea infested, but I am not sure about this behavior in Foxes.
When the parents allow them to play, Kits can be rambunctious. To get 10 minutes of action, plan on spending hours waiting and hoping!
Unlike their shaggy parents, the Kits are always clean, sleek and “cuddly”, much like a baby kitten!
It’s probably worth mentioning that great light can turn “just another Fox photo” into a memorable one.
Early mornings and late evenings create long shadows and beautiful light. The sun is usually very low in the sky during the mid-Winter months and snow bounces light back to the subjects, so it usually possible to shoot all day.
As I mentioned earlier, I like the idea of taking a lot of images, including ones where the Foxes are just sitting around or standing, but my goal is to capture shots that are harder to get and unique in some form or another.
The Changing Fox Populations
Outside the National Parks, Foxes and Coyotes are not protected from hunters and trappers. Hunters and trappers don’t even need a license or permit. Town regulations prohibit firing a rifle inside town limits. Hunters and trappers need permission to be on private land. They can’t hunt and trap in closure areas, but that’s about the limit on the controls.
The open season on Foxes and Coyotes probably explains why some of them are leery of humans. In 2008, there were numerous Foxes in and around the town of Wilson, but they aren’t seen too often now. Perhaps they were killed or trapped out once news of their numbers got out. Possibly, it is cyclical, based on the amount of voles and mice in the area, or they move to areas where food is more plentiful? All I know is you can’t count on similar numbers from year to year in any one area.
Inside the National Parks, Foxes may face unforeseen dangers. They are protected from hunting and trapping, but dangers still exist. A few of the Foxes around Colter Bay and Flagg Ranch had apparently been fed over the years.
Foxes were quick to learn the sound of a vehicle slowing down and the sounds of a potato chip bag being opened. They could be seen waiting for food as snowmobilers and fishermen returned from their day trips. Eventually, several populations of Foxes became what the Park Service calls “habituated” to humans.
CUA permit holders (licensed guides) received emails announcing a 2017 program to tag and collar “habituated” Foxes around the valley.
Prior to the 2017 Study Program, the Park Service put up portable signs in many areas frequented by Foxes, letting people it was illegal to feed them. One of the senior Park Rangers in the Colter Bay area recently told me the signs, along with the tagging and collaring of the Foxes has slowed their begging and roadside behavior. Since the program began, Foxes in the targeted zones seem to have essentially disappeared. Few of the tagged and collared Foxes have been reported or seen. Other photographers and tour operators are reporting similar observations.
I have no first hand knowledge of the Park Service “removing” any of the habituated Red Foxes. If they removed a few of them, the Ranger I spoke with didn’t know about it.
If you are in the Jackson Hole area, you can help all of us, and the Foxes, if you read the signs and “Don’t Feed the Foxes”. You’ve probably heard the saying, “A fed Bear is a dead Bear”. I’d hate to think a “A fed Fox is a dead Fox” in Grand Teton National Park. Foxes are fully equipped to find their own food, but they are also opportunistic feeders. Potato chips and cookies may seem like harmless offerings, but they could cause their demise if one becomes overly aggressive or bites a tourist.
Unlike Bears and Wolves (100 yards), other animals like Foxes have a minimum viewing distance of 25 yards. The rules are on this page: The 100 Yard Rule(s). For photographers with 400mm to 600mm telephoto lenses, that’s normally not an issue. People with shorter lenses and cell phones, tend to want to be much closer. In the past year or two, the Park Service has become more strict about the minimum distance rule with the Foxes, just like they did with the Bears. Occasionally, a Fox will walk right by a group of photographers standing alongside the road, like the one above. The rules state people are to stay back 25 yards, and some officers may enforce it.
The photos below were queued up to be inserted within this post, but weren’t needed. Hope you enjoy them!
You simply have to love the Red Foxes!
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