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Plenty of gray area in debate over foxes

Joe Lewis Cary sent Lake County Forest Preserve picture gray fox near his neighborhood. The picture was taken during summer

Joe Lewis of Cary sent the Lake County Forest Preserve a picture of a gray fox near his neighborhood. The picture was taken during the summer, but he saw it last week again. | SPECIAL TO SUN-TIMES MEDIA

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Updated: January 9, 2013 6:05AM

The prairie gray fox is alive and rare in Lake County.

In an interesting convergence of news, I saw the Lake County Forest Preserve’s fun Facebook feature called “No way! Thursday” — an amazing factoid adventure that showed a beautiful picture of a gray fox. Allison Frederick, environmental communications specialist, writes the feature and it always has something interesting.

She wrote this about the gray fox: Gray foxes occur throughout most of the southern half of North America. However, they are rare in Lake County. Gray foxes have a black-tipped tail, which distinguishes this species from red foxes.

Gray foxes can be found in deciduous woodlands and are unique members of the dog family because they can climb trees (the Asian raccoon dog is the only other climbing dog). Gray foxes have strong, hooked claws that allow them to scramble up trees to avoid predators or get fruit. They den during the day in old woodchuck burrows, stumps or hollow trees —sometimes as high as 30 feet above the ground!

Now the convergence.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service just sent the following notice that they are reviewing whether the prairie gray fox and plains-spotted skunk warrant federal protection as threatened or endangered species after an initial review of a petition seeking to protect these species under the Endangered Species Act:

“Today’s announcement, known as a 90-day finding, is based on scientific information about the species provided in the petition. The 90-day finding does not mean that the Service has decided it is appropriate to give the prairie gray fox and plains spotted skunk federal protection under the ESA. Rather, this finding triggers a more thorough status review of all the biological information available.”

So basically, they have enough scientific info to warrant more scientific input. They will do a status review and either decide it doesn’t warrant listing, or it should be listed, which means it has to go to further review and public comment that takes at least a year.

If they do list it, it could be precluded by other species of plants or animals that are even more endangered. If listed, the Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to kill, harm or otherwise “take” a listed species, or to possess, import, export or engage in interstate or international commerce of a listed species without authorization in the form of a permit from the Service.

Right now in Illinois, it is fox season for hunters and you can take gray or red fox.

The last time I heard about the gray fox was when coyote expert Stan Gehrt was talking about coyotes attacking foxes and that he has seen gray fox being more effected by this type of predation than red fox. Gehrt is the expert from the Cook County Coyote Project with the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation and professor at Ohio State University.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Web site was not working correctly so I’ll have to give you an update and information on how to comment by next week, I hope.

Eagle eyes

Or should I say eagle ears? Jeff Caldwell, 63, of Lindenhurst is a retired medical technician who enjoys walking and biking at the forest preserves and last Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Rollins Savanna, he was walking near the bird observation platform on the north side of the lake when he thought he heard a hawk.

“Then, I heard crows and I saw a flock of them mobbing a mature bald eagle,” he said. “I have seen eagles along the Mississippi, Alaska, Wisconsin and out west, but it is quite a thrill to see one in your own backyard,” he said.

The forest preserve had recently burned a nearby oak woodland and he could see the eagle in an oak tree about 500 feet off the trail. The eagle was about 30 feet up in the oak and the crows were on lower branches surrounding him. For those who might not know, “mobbing” is when smaller birds will go after bigger predator birds to chase them out of their territory.

“They’re very vocal,” he said of the crows. Caldwell grew up on five acres off Cemetery Road in Gurnee when it was a gravel road. His father, who grew up hunting and fishing in southern Illinois, would always tell him the bird’s name and certain things about it.

“So I grew up with an appetite for nature,” he said.

Caldwell says the weird weather has offered other nature opportunities. He was recently at Raven Glen East and saw an American toad in the grass by the trail instead of being submerged in the mud to hibernate through the winter.

“Anytime you get outside, there’s always these wonders to be appreciated,” Caldwell said.

Wish I said that myself. As part of the choir, I say Amen.

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