Remember when naked foxes roamed Steamboat? | SteamboatToday.com

Remember when naked foxes roamed Steamboat?

A red fox enjoys the spring sun with her kits in Old Town Steamboat Springs April 19. Urban fox dens are not unusual in the city.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – One of the earliest signs of new wildlife babies in the upper Yampa Valley this spring appeared on the front page of the Steamboat Pilot & Today on April 19 with photographer John Russell's image of a red fox kit playing outside the den.

But foxes here haven’t always enjoyed such domestic bliss.

Russell's excellent photographs were taken at a den he's been keeping an eye on in Old Town Steamboat, and urban foxes are not uncommon here.

For years, there was a perennial fox den under the Arnold Barn on the edge of Steamboat Ski Area's Meadows parking lot.

Rural Steamboat resident Clay Hanger reacted to Russell's photographs this week with a fox story of his own.

One year, when he was working as a plumber, Hanger found out how ravenous a fox can be.

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"I got a call from a lady who had a stopped-up sewer line," Hanger recalled. "I came over to her house with a small Roto Rooter and cleaned out her sink. When I was on her front doorstep, there was a mama fox and a bunch of kits.

"I asked the woman, 'Did you know you have a bunch of foxes in your front yard?' She replied, "Yes. Last week, I went to the grocery store and on top of the bag was a whole chicken. I didn't notice that it fell out in the yard."

When it finally dawned on her that her chicken wasn't safely stowed in the refrigerator, "she went out in the front yard to find out there was nothing left of the chicken but a pile of bones," Hanger said.

U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Missy Dressen in Steamboat Springs agrees there is something different about red foxes and their tolerance of humans.

"They're kind of curious, docile creatures," she said. "It's almost like they'll check you out."

In the case of red foxes denning inside the Steamboat city limits, Dressen believes it has to do with the life cycle of pocket gophers.

"Coyotes and foxes are really reliant on small mammal populations,” Dressen explained. “When we see high pocket gopher populations, foxes and coyotes do quite well."

When gophers are in low supply, coyotes put pressure on the foxes, increasing the likelihood they'll turn into city dwellers.

And that could explain a bizarre anecdote that took place from 2005 to 2009 in Steamboat, when "naked foxes" roamed the alleys and yards of Ski Town USA.

Of course, the foxes weren't naked. They just appeared that way because a significant number of the critters had completely lost their luxurious reddish coats leaving them looking something like a very long and lean chihuahua. Even their formerly fluffy tails were revealed to be stick-like.

People in Steamboat were mystified and called the police department to report the creepy-looking creatures.

"A lot of people were calling them a new species," Dressen laughed.

The hairless foxes simply had a bad case of the mange, she said. Mange is a pretty miserable condition caused by parasitic mites that results in severe itching and hair loss.

The hairless foxes were so distraught, they sometimes behaved oddly, Dressen said.

And nothing could match the pathetic creature that persisted in stealing the golf balls from a putting green that a Steamboat man kept in his yard.

One of the benefits of having one's own putting green is that you can leave the golf balls out over night. But in the summer of 2009, Tom Houk awoke to find the golf balls missing from his green.

Mystified, Houk dutifully replaced the golf balls morning after morning, and every night, they would disappear.

Finally one morning, Houk awoke to confront a naked fox in his backyard, and it was running off with a golf ball in his mouth.

Good luck digesting a Titleist.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1.