Author’s note: This is meant to primarily be an information piece, in order to spread the word about sudden changes to park regulations and enforcement on San Juan Island. Though it’s impossible for me to remain neutral on this topic given how it’s affected me personally and professionally, I am not writing this to debate the justification and reasoning behind recent decisions by park management. This is intended to warn visitors about how last-minute changes may affect their park photography experience.
Since publishing this piece, it’s received significant feedback and comments. The situation also continues to evolve in different ways. Some updates can be found at the bottom of the page.
For those wondering, yes, I am aware of the changes in management on San Juan Island in regard to the photography of red foxes near American Camp this spring. I have unexpectedly been at the forefront of the effort to spread the word to my fellow guides and photographers (both professional and hobbyist), in order to increase awareness of the last-minute change that is going to adversely affect a lot of people traveling to this part of the Pacific Northwest.
First, Some Background
The red foxes on San Juan Island—a non-native species—have attracted more and more attention in recent years, thanks to viral videos and photos posted online in recent years. The foxes have attracted photographers such as myself due to the consistent, good, and enjoyable photo and viewing opportunities available in the open fields around the island’s southeast corner, and due to the colorful variety of fur phases fox kits sport each year between May and June.
I learned about the foxes several years ago, and began leading tours to the island in 2019 as an officially licensed guide through the San Juan Island National Historical Park’s Commercial Use Authorization (CUA) program. In 2020 and 2021 I did not lead tours on the island due to COVID and scheduling conflicts, but planned to resume guiding with two short outings this June.
Since the foxes began attracting more and more attention just a few years ago, some locals on the island have begun voicing concern about the behavior of park visitors and increased pressure on the foxes, which have denned regularly in highly-trafficked and easily-accessible areas near American Camp. A volunteer “fox brigade” was established in order to monitor visitor behavior and advise tourists on “best practices” in regard to maintaining appropriate distances (25 yards, aligned with typical national park wildlife viewing regulations) and interaction with the foxes.
During my visits—often taking place later in the spring in order to avoid larger crowds and to see more active kits—I very rarely witnessed “unethical” (whatever that means… wildlife ethics are nebulous at best) behavior. Never did I see baiting of foxes, nor the pursuit of animals by photographers to the point of pressuring them. At times, the foxes would approach people out of curiosity or in passing, within 25 yards. Kits especially are curious, but they quickly learn there is little to fear from people. There is a detriment to this habituation, especially in areas near increased vehicle traffic, so in some of these cases the humans didn’t do enough to dissuade the animals from approaching (clapping hands and yelling is usually a good technique for driving them off, something I’ve applied effectively to too-close wildlife encounters in other places since I first witnessed it on San Juan).
I am not ignorant of the questionable and irresponsible behavior that does occur around wildlife, however. I have no doubt that some visitors have fed the foxes, and that during more busy and crowded times, mobs of photographers probably cut off access points for the adults bringing food to dens, or to kits wishing to follow their parents or explore freely. This stuff happens, and it was a cause of increased ire felt by those who wish to protect the foxes.
An increased human presence may also have an affect on other aspects of the local environment. The endangered Island Marble Butterfly relies on sensitive habitat in areas near some of the fox den sites, so the concerns about people trampling these locations has been a primary focus of park management in recent years… based on signage and marked boundaries around butterfly habitat, at least. I never witnessed visitors walking through these areas because they were clearly designated and well-marked (again, not to say it hasn’t happened).
The primary area where the foxes have denned—an open prairie and a hillside below a road—have not been closed off with official signage. Until now. In past years, photographers, hikers, Fox Brigade volunteers, and official park personnel would all wander away from the road onto the prairie or down the hill at times. In the case of the prairie, a couple of well-worn paths were formed cutting through the middle of the area and past the best areas for fox kit viewing. These trails were not “officially designated” trails on the park map, however. Signs were posted along the edges of these areas reminding visitors not to feed the animals, and to maintain the 25 yard distance, but there was no language barring people from entering these areas.
So What Has Changed?
On the surface, nothing was going to be different about this season, as recently as early spring of this year. Behind the scenes, the park service was studying the situation and trying to figure out ways to reduce pressure on the foxes while maintaining an enjoyable visitation experience.
I know this because I was involved in some of the discussions about this very topic. The idea of having me come in and give talks on “best practices in the field” had been even broached by the park. They recognized that, as a long-time photographer and CUA holder (in another park that has plenty of challenges with human-wildlife interactions: Yellowstone), I might offer some perspective and education on the subject.
For a couple years now, there have been rumors that the park service might change their approach to the foxes. The foxes, after all, are not a native species. There’s been talk that the park may cull both the foxes and their favorite prey—the non-native, and wildly abundant European rabbit—in order to restore this part of the island ecosystem to a more “natural state.” In fact, following the almost non-existent 2020 spring visitation season (essentially cancelled due to COVID), it was very difficult as a non-resident to find out whether the lack of fox kit sightings that year was due to a cull, disease, or some other reason. Ironically, it turns out the lack of human visitation emboldened the local Bald Eagles, which came in and picked off all the fox kits that spring.
Unsure of what to make of the swirling rumors about policy changes, and also being aware of increased anti-photographer sentiment from certain circles, I contacted the park to learn more about how the 2022 spring season would be handled. During a late November conference call, I expressed that my chief goal was to understand if any changes would be made to park policies for prairie access and visitation. I was not going to offer photo tours if the park planned to limit visitor access to the point where reliable photo opportunities were no longer viable. Extending the distance limit to 50 yards would have still worked for the purposes of leading what I felt would be a successful and positive viewing and photography experience. Extending the limit to 100 yards, or closing off the prairie would not.
By the end of that discussion, I was assured that there would be no changes for the upcoming season, and that I could proceed with offering my tours.
So I did, scheduling two outings in early June—once again, after the peak of the fox visitation season in order to avoid the crowds. Both trips sold out.
Fast forward to March, when I became aware of even more anti-photographer rumblings on the internet. Out of the blue, I received multiple comments and messages from people on the same day related to my fox workshops, so I figured something was up. In my case, nobody was nasty to me (colleagues have not been so lucky), but I did receive unprovoked lectures about appropriate behavior, pointed questions about baiting, and probing queries disguised as tour inquiries.
In public forums, the comments were nastier. Some people linked directly to my tour page (it’s one of the top results for “San Juan Island fox tours” and similar searches), accompanied by comments expressing anti-photographer/tourist sentiment. One local referred to island tourists as “ferry barf.” The island’s economy is largely reliant on such visitors, of course, and it should be noted that fox photography season falls outside of the prime summer visitation time. The foxes have been bringing a lot of extra tourist revenue to San Juan Island in recent years, a figure most likely in the millions of dollars (if you doubt my estimate, read about how a single bobcat was estimated to bring in $300,000 of additional revenue to a Yellowstone border town one winter).
Soon after these discussions formed online, and after I received those messages, a colleague and I were forwarded an email written by someone who was planning on staging a protest at American Camp due to our presence.
On March 31st, the park invited the public to an open forum to discuss the issue, likely due to the fact that it was escalating. I chose not to make the trip out to attend the gathering (what a fun way to spend my anniversary!), but requested a report from the park office following the event in case there were any important notes or changes.
Good thing I did.
Following the meeting, the park service had chosen to completely close off access to the prairie at American Camp, and restrict visitor access to roads or designated trails.
Here is the updated map, provided by the park service, denoting the now-restricted area.
Note that some are now claiming this area was always closed off. This is false. As noted, multiple people, including Fox Brigade and park service personnel, walked through the off-road/off-trail areas west and east of Pickett’s Lane over the years. Only designated islands of butterfly habitat—found within these red borders—had barriers and signage excluding access in previous years.
So What Does This Mean For Photographers?
Based on my experience and those of other frequent visitors to the area, the change severely restricts opportunities for decent fox photo opportunities. The only foxes that approach the road are adults trying to cross as they head off to or return from a hunt. The kits don’t come near the road most of the time (which is a good thing, of course).
Most of the better photography opportunities—especially with kits—occurred in the middle of the prairie, well away from the road, and away from the still-accessible western trail that runs along the prairie’s edge. On rare occasions, foxes venture closer to that trail, but with much longer grass in the area it’s much more difficult to get clear photos. And the kits almost never venture west of the trail at a young age.
This change has effectively moved photographers back at least 100 yards, on average, from the clearest, most reliable places to photograph kits, and eliminates any ability for people to change viewing or shooting angles.
Some folks will cheer this change, but the point of this article isn’t to debate the decision (others may have some very reasonable arguments against it, opinions which are likely being sent to the park or will be published publicly soon).
Right now, it’s more important that people who were planning visits to the park this spring understand what they’re in for, because this is a sudden and major change. I only proceeded with tour planning over the winter after receiving assurances there would be no change. Mere weeks before “fox season,” everything was different.
I felt compelled to cancel my tours, since the new regulations ensured we would lack sufficient viewing and photography opportunities to make my own tour offerings worthwhile for clients (most reports from folks who have been to the island recently to check out the new situation back up this assertion). It’s important to point out, of course, that this was my decision based on my own goals for the experience I desired my clients to have. Some photographers may still deem the new situation to be adequate for their own goals (I’ve heard from a couple), while others are likely to feel this greatly hampers their ability to have or lead a successful trip.
For those who feel the change is a significant alteration to the photography experience, it has major consequences, as I outlined to the park office following the news. In my case, it impacts tens of thousands of dollars flowing from clients to myself, and on to island businesses. Some of my clients were traveling from as far away as Europe to visit the island, and in several cases they were extending their stay on the island before or after the tours. Now, in nearly all cases, those extended visits, hotel stays, and additional tourist activities have been canceled, impacting both visitors who can’t recoup non-refundable travel costs, and businesses that will lose revenue generated by spring guests.
I, of course, was not the only guide leading trips, and I urged the park service to contact all CUA holders to inform them of the changes, since hundreds of thousands of dollars are likely at stake.
I received no indication they would do so, however, so I reached out to fellow guides to give them a heads-up. Indeed, outside of updating their website with the new enforcement policies, I don’t believe the park service has done anything to proactively warn visitors. That is why I’ve been compelled to publish this update.
Since I first spread word of the new situation, I’ve been contacted by additional guides who were going to lead trips, as well as multiple people who were planning independent visits. They were asking for clarity about the latest rumors, seeking more information, or just wondering if I had heard and how my situation was affected.
The merits of the park’s decision can and will be debated. What cannot be questioned is that the timing of the decision has adversely affected multiple businesses (including those on San Juan Island) and individuals, and will negatively affect the visitation experience for the many people showing up on the island with different expectations this spring. Those people need to know about these changes before sinking their time and hundreds or thousands of dollars into making the trek out.
The primary intent of this article is to help visitors make a more informed decision about whether they can achieve the photography experience they were seeking. If you need further clarification, as a photographer, about the changes, you are welcome to contact me to get my perspective.
If you have questions about the official enforcement of the new regulations, I encourage you to contact the national park office directly.
I will not, however, address those wishing to debate the decision itself, nor the justification behind it. Others are more familiar with the history of the area and past policy to understand how solid or flimsy the reasoning behind the new enforcement is, and they will undoubtedly have more information to share on the matter.
My main opinion expressed at this time is that the timing of this last-minute change is terrible given its affect on visitors and business owners. It’s a decision that should have been handed down during fall or winter, and the park office is well aware of my opinion on that at this point. The change will undoubtedly have long term consequences from a human perspective. We’ll have to see what changes are in store for the wildlife. The eagles, for one, may be happy.
December 2022 Update: With the dust mostly settled following a tumultuous spring, this is a good time to offer a post-script to this piece, as it continues to draw eyes, attention, and comments from various parties. For those who are unaware of how the season actually played out, here’s a general recap of events that transpired (as relayed to me by numerous parties who made the trip out… some of this info can be gleaned from the Comments section as well).
A number of photographers and photography groups still visited San Juan Island in hopes of photographing foxes this spring. During the early part of the season (the first few weeks in May), enforcement of the closed-off prairie was visible, but as expected, photo opportunities were much less frequent. Some who were present got lucky with the occasional fox crossing the road, while others were content photographing kits from a farther distance away.
Two things immediately occurred as folks arrived at the area now closed to public access. First, the Bald Eagles came in and hunted the fox kits in the prairie. As was the case in 2020 (when the area was devoid of tourists due to COVID), the raptors were emboldened by the lack of people in the field. Some photographers were lucky to be on hand to document eagles flying away with kits, but soon there were no kits left. The closure, of course, was encouraged by many people purportedly caring for the foxes’ welfare, yet this was an expected result (recall the last line of the article above). The second development was that people discovered a separate fox den site, away from the park land, which could be accessed without regulation by the park service. Fox brigade volunteers even relayed this information and encouraged visitors to go see that den early on.
Ultimately it was this other den site that became the epicenter for the massive problems that occurred over the course of a few weeks. Locals were quick to point out the crowding at the den site, sharing images of photographers set up before the clump of vegetation the foxes called home. After that came rumors of baiting, with foxes seen carrying hot dogs and chicken legs.
The only problem was that it was a local who was feeding the foxes (they were actually documented doing so). Nonetheless, the photographers continued to be the target of the blame and ire of residents. And even as late as October, local news outlets ran stories pointing at photographers as the cause for the baiting issue (it was also hinted they were the cause for fox kit mortality at that den, though no mention was made of what happened in the prairie). The disinformation campaign started well before the first spring photographers even arrived, so it wasn’t surprising.
Nor was it constructive, as there were escalations in anti-photographer behavior from certain individuals that even went so far as to stress and threaten the foxes. There were personal threats of violence leveled against photographers (police were called). And at one point a resident brought their dogs to the den site and let them off-leash… in hopes, apparently, of scaring off the foxes so the photographers would have nothing to photograph.
By late May, everyone seemed to have run out of energy. There was nothing to enforce at the prairie, and people were either ordered to stop bothering visitors, or more likely they gave up trying. Late season visitors reported no run-ins and barely any foot traffic while they photographed the den.
Ultimately, it was an awful situation that only reinforced my decision to cancel my tours. The behavior of select residents, a consistent flow of misinformation, and an illusion of “pro-fox” sentiment thinly disguising what is actually anti-tourist behavior continues to harm the economy and image of San Juan Island.
I will continue to advise caution to those who are considering visiting the island, until such time as the park service and local community can create an improved, logical, and more welcoming plan for visiting wildlife enthusiasts and photography groups in a manner that finds proper and sustainable balance with the local ecosystem.
August 2023 Update: Glenn Nelson spent some time researching this issue and recently published an extensive article in the Seattle Times. I commend Glenn on his hard work, and for getting the perspective from so many people affected by the issue (including both “sides,” and those caught in between). To learn more about what has transpired these last couple years, check out the article here.