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School of Environment and Natural Resources


TWEL Alison Willingham Thesis

Distribution and relative abundance of gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) in northeastern Illinois
Alison N. Willingham, MS
Advisor: Stan Gehrt
Statewide surveys of furbearers in Illinois indicate gray (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) and red (Vulpes vulpes) foxes have experienced substantial declines in relative abundance, whereas other species such as raccoons (Procyon lotor) and coyotes (Canis latrans) have exhibited dramatic increases during the same time period. The cause of the declines of gray and red foxes has not been identified, and the current status of gray foxes remains uncertain. Therefore, I conducted a large-scale predator survey and tracked radio-collared gray foxes from 2004 to 2007 in order to determine the distribution, survival, cause-specific mortality sources and land cover associations of gray foxes in an urbanized region of northeastern Illinois, and examined the relationships between the occurrence of gray fox and the presence other species of mesopredators, specifically coyotes and raccoons.
Although generalist mesopredators are common and can reach high densities in many urban areas their urban ecology is poorly understood due to their secretive nature and wariness of humans. Understanding how mesopredators utilize urbanized landscapes can be useful in the management and control of disease outbreaks, mitigation of nuisance wildlife issues, and gaining insight into how mesopredators shape wildlife communities in highly fragmented areas. I examined habitat associations of raccoons, opossums (Didelphis virginiana), domestic cats (Felis catus), coyotes, foxes (gray and red), and striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) at multiple spatial scales in an urban environment.
Gray fox occurrence was rare and widely dispersed, and survival estimates were similar to other studies. Gray fox occurrence was negatively associated with natural and semi-natural land cover types. Fox home range size increased with increasing urban development suggesting that foxes may be negatively influenced by urbanization. Gray fox occurrence was not associated with coyote or raccoon presence. However, spatial avoidance and mortality due to coyote predation was documented and disease was a major mortality source for foxes. The declining relative abundance of gray fox in Illinois is likely a result of a combination of factors.
Assessment of habitat associations indicated that urban mesopredators, particularly coyotes and foxes, perceived the landscape as relatively homogeneous and that urban mesopredators interacted with the environment at scales larger than that accommodated by remnant habitat patches. Coyote and fox presence was found to be associated with a high degree of urban development at large and intermediate spatial scales. However, at a small spatial scale fox presence was associated with high density urban land cover whereas coyote presence was associated with urban development with increased forest cover. Urban habitats can offer a diversity of prey items and anthropogenic resources and natural land cover could offer coyotes daytime resting opportunities in urban areas where they may not be as tolerated as smaller foxes.
Raccoons and opossums were found to utilize moderately developed landscapes with interspersed natural and semi-natural land covers at a large spatial scale, which may facilitate dispersal movements. At intermediate and small spatial scales, both species were found to utilize areas that were moderately developed and included forested land cover. These results indicated that raccoons and opossums used natural areas in proximity to anthropogenic resources.
At a large spatial scale, skunk presence was associated with highly developed landscapes with interspersed natural and semi-natural land covers. This may indicate that skunks perceived the urban matrix as more homogeneous than raccoons or opossums. At an intermediate spatial scale skunks were associated with moderate levels of development and increased forest cover, which indicated that they might utilize natural land cover in proximity to human-dominated land cover. At the smallest spatial scale skunk presence was associated with forested land cover surrounded by a suburban matrix. Compared to raccoons and opossums, skunks may not be tolerated in close proximity to human development in urban areas.
Domestic cat presence was positively associated with increasingly urbanized and less diverse landscapes with decreased amounts of forest and urban open space at the largest spatial scale. At an intermediate spatial scale, cat presence was associated with a moderate degree of urban development characterized by increased forest cover, and at a small spatial scale cat presence was associated with a high degree of urbanization. Free-ranging domestic cats are often associated with human-dominated landscapes and likely utilize remnant natural habitat patches for hunting purposes, which may have implications for native predator and prey species existing in fragmented habitat patches in proximity to human development.