The little foxes that could

The little foxes that could

The rare island fox stages a dramatic comeback on the Channel Islands

By Chuck Graham 02/01/2007

Tucked away in my sleeping bag in October 2006, a cool island breeze filtered through my tent. A thin, black mesh screen was the only thing separating me from Santa Cruz Island (part of the Channel Islands National Park.) Not sleeping too soundly, I was wide awake when I felt a soft, wet poke on top of my head. I sat up and found myself face to face with a house cat-sized island fox (Urocyon littoralis). Aided by the bright full moonbeams piercing through the towering eucalyptus grove, I saw its moist nose reflect in the moonlight. Maybe the curious island dweller didn\\'t sense the separation of my tent’s screen and was planning to waltz right on through my tent. No matter. It was the first wild island fox I\\'d seen on Santa Cruz since the late 1990s.

However, this slender critter wasn\\'t alone. Two of its siblings bounded past my tent onto the picnic table, and they displayed their excellent tree climbing ability in a nearby fig tree. The frenetic horseplay went on through dawn, their furry coats soaked by morning dew. They relished the warmth of the morning sun, while foraging for endemic deer mice, perhaps a grasshopper, or even a western yellow-bellied racer.

On the brink

The scene described above has been rare on the archipelago for many years. A feral pig population left over from the island\\'s ranching era lured non native golden eagles from the mainland. The raptors soon realized that tiny island foxes were a much easier catch than the scruffy swine, while migrating from Santa Cruz to San Miguel. The golden eagles nearly wiped out the fox populations on both islands. The situation appeared dire when San Miguel was down to its last 14 foxes by the year 2000.

An aggressive captive breeding program ensued on each island and the island fox was listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife\\'s endangered species list. At the same time, golden eagles were trapped and released onto the mainland and the feral pigs were eradicated. Bald eagles, which are aggressive competitors of golden eagles, have been restored on the northern chain. (Bald eagles eat fish, not foxes.)

As well, captive breeding has been successful. Each spring, island fox numbers rose as new pups entered the fray, and now the National Park Service (NPS), The Nature Conservancy, the Institute for Wildlife Studies and other entities are replenishing the wild population or, in the case of San Miguel Island, starting all over.

The New Breed

Wide-eyed and anxious one moment, the next second the foxes were cinnamon blurs bursting and bounding freely over dormant grasses for the first time in their endangered lives. Last fall, 18 island foxes were released on the NPS property of Santa Cruz Island for the fist time since captive breeding began on the largest of the Channel Islands in 1999.

The foxes were brought over on an Island Packers boat from the captive breeding facility in the Central Valley on Nature Conservancy property. They were placed on Santa Cruz to replenish what has been a sparsely populated region for the largest native land predator on the Channel Islands.

Biologists chose to release the foxes at strategic sites on the southeast end of Santa Cruz, stretching from Potato Harbor to Smugglers Cove, where fox densities were sparse. Transported in small cages to each site, males and females were paired up and then released.

Before their return to freedom, biologists trapped 20 individual foxes to gauge their territories and numbers in the region. There’s still the worry that captive-bred foxes will run into established fox territories and aggressive encounters will ensue, especially amongst males pursuing females in January. In all, 58 foxes were released this past fall on Santa Cruz.

\\\"That’s key; we want to avoid [conflicts] as much as possible,\\\" explained Tim Coonan, terrestrial biologist for the NPS. \\\"Sometimes they run into each other. It does occur when choosing mates with hardcore breeding activity in January. Hormones rise and they get very aggressive.\\\"

Captive breeding has gone so well on the island that it’s possible the last release of the remaining captive population could be in the fall of 2007. The wild population is also on the rise after the eradication of the feral pig population and since there has been no golden eagle predation since last spring.

\\\"We’re about done with captive breeding on Santa Cruz,\\\" said Coonan, who has been involved with the recovery of island foxes on the entire archipelago. \\\"The wild population has grown dramatically in the last couple years, and the fall of ’07 could be the last big release of captive-bred foxes. Things are looking so good on Santa Cruz and San Miguel.\\\"

Santa Cruz has the largest wild population, with around 300 individuals covering the mountainous islet. 25 foxes remain in captive breeding, but those won’t be released until they have their pups in the spring and the new pups have grown ready to venture on their own in the fall. \\\"Fall is the best time to release the foxes,\\\" continued Coonan. \\\"The pups have grown. It’s ideal for that.\\\"

San Miguel Island has also seen a spike in its wild and captive populations. Coonan said the survival rate on the windswept islet is very high for the wild population at 90 percent. twenty-five pups were born in the wild last spring, and there are now 77 individuals establishing territories across the island.

The same can’t be said for Santa Rosa Island. Although Coonan said there are no remaining golden eagles on the second-largest of the Channel Islands, the wild island fox population is still very low at around 50 individuals, with 28 animals in captive breeding.

\\\"The small population of foxes on Santa Rosa can be attributed to the most recent bout of golden eagle predation during the winter and spring of ’06,\\\" he said. \\\"We’re heading into golden eagle season right now.\\\"

Biologists will be keeping a close eye on the raptors that show up in the winter in order to build up fox resources to breed, which happens in February. \\\"We’re really cognizant of this fact,\\\" he said.

Foxy friends

Nearly two years ago, island foxes endeared themselves to mainland supporters. Friends of the Island Fox is a nonprofit organization that was started by Patricia Meyers and is based in Somis. In 2002 and 2003, her study of the decline of the fox, in conjunction with her volunteer lecture work at the Los Angeles Zoo, lead to her realization that the island critter needed assistance. \\\"It was Tim Coonan that suggested to me that I start a nonprofit to help the island fox,\\\" said Meyers. \\\"I talked it over with him and he convinced me to do it.\\\"

In 2005, Friends of the Island Fox was created to raise public awareness of a creature that is currently rarer than China\\'s giant panda. However, that may change in the not-so-distant future. Meyers says individuals care about the island fox when they find out about it. \\\"People know about foxes on the mainland,\\\" continued Meyers, \\\"but the majority does not know about island foxes.\\\"

She said those introduced to the species are attracted to its physical appeal and small size. The animal’s endangered species status causes people to want to protect and help the creature. Children are particularly attracted to the fox, due to its size, which does not produce fear with children.

The island fox is currently exhibited at seven zoos in the United States, the closest one being the Santa Barbara Zoo. There are eight channel islands off the California coast, and six of those have island foxes. Catalina, San Nicholas and San Clemente are the other three islands. Several of the island fox subspecies are represented at the zoos, and festivals at these institutions provide a platform for public awareness and fundraising efforts.

\\\"We provide educational materials to those facilities to enhance the learning at those locations,\\\" explained Meyers. \\\"We hope to enter a partnership with the National Park Service to further educate and appeal to the public.\\\"

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