One rare red fox, a rare species, is still surviving in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains. It is smaller than its lowland counterparts and its feet are furrier. Pocket gophers are its primary food source. This alpine subspecies is thought to have split from the common red foxes in a past ice age. Its geographic isolation has allowed it to remain genetically distinct.

Jocelyn Akins (a biologist and founder of the Cascades Carnivore Project) says that a fox down in Seattle and a Cascade fox up on Mount Rainier are separated by nearly half a million years worth of evolution. The key question facing the nonprofit research group is: How many foxes remain? Akins states, “When a species of fox is very rare, it’s very useful to count them but also extremely difficult.” Researchers estimate that there are less than 20 breeding foxes in the southern Cascades where the subspecies is found.

Social media is a unique source of information about this animal. Researchers examine photos of Cascade Foxes taken by visitors to Mount Rainier National Park. Traditional knowledge is another source. Alisa Smith Woodruff (or Yiiaylica) is a Skokomish Indian Nation member. She has searched Northwest tribes’ storieswork, which are fictional tales that are based on fact, for references to the Cascade Fox. One story tells how a flock of snipe outsmarts a fox that would otherwise have been eaten. These tales can give clues as to the animal’s history.

Researchers believe that the Cascade Fox’s current range is only half what it was once. The decline in numbers has been attributed to climate change, other species and park visitors who interact directly with the foxes.

State officials set out to declare the Cascade Fox endangered in June. This classification requires that the government funds conservation efforts at the mountain peaks where the animal calls home. Akins says, “My hope is there will be new attention, and with it financial assistance, to understand what threatens” Cascade Foxes. This will allow officials, advocates, and even Instagram-loving people to better protect the unique animal and its habitat.

This article is a selection of the July/August issue Smithsonian magazine.