From near extinction to recovery in 10 years: Island Fox

Had the opportunity to write a newspaper story about an adorable species, the Island Fox of the Channel Islands, that biologists say has gone from near-extinction at the end of the 20th century to a full biological recovery in the ten years since it was put on the endangered species list.

Loved writing the story, which can be found here (and I'll post it below, in case of paywall). Still, lots of interesting details can't be shoehorned into a newspaper story.

Here are a few of those interesting details. 

Fascinated to meet a fellow named Dave Garcelon of the Institute for Wilderness Studies. He said he launched the institute, which at the time was basically his own self, but now has about two dozen staffers, when he was an undergrad at Humbolt State in the late l970's. He explained: 

I wanted to do a Bald Eagle re-introduction program on Catalina, but I didn't have a lot of people behind me who believed it would be successful. New York had started a Bald Eagle recovery program in l976, but the birds hadn't bred yet, so no one knew if that was going to work, and I was just a kid. No one listened. I was trying to latch on to the university or some program but no one believed it would actually work, so I said, the heck with it, I'll start my own program, and I'll get my own grants. [edit]

I started working on releases of rehabiliated birds and looking into the history of Bald eagles and I found out [the Channel Islands] used to be a stronghold for the eagles. I just thought: That would be a really cool thing to do. 

Also had a chance to interview Tim Coonan of the National Park Service, who led the meeting of the working group devoted to the Channel Fox. He had some great details about the fox to relate, including the fact that the foxes have shown signs of adaptation/domestication as they have recovered and become habituated to seeing people 

At the Santa Cruz campground there's a family of foxes that is quite adept at using the resources available, and they have probably passed that information on to their young. We do not see that on other islands or even on other parts of Santa Cruz. They're very smart, adaptable animals, and they were probably kept as semi-pets by the Chumash Indians,. We know the Chumash took them to the southern islands from the northern islands. They never ate Island Foxes, there's no evidence of Island Fox bones in their middens, and yet they were important to the Chumash, they show up in their ceremonial burial sites. So I think they've always been easily tamed. They're an island species, they have no natural predators, so they have no fear of humans at all. And so where they have a lot of human contact, you will get individual animals that will change their behavior. [edit]

There can be as many as 15-20 per square kilometer. Their home ranges are very small, anywhere from half a kilometer up to two kilometers. Males and females defend territories together throughout the year. They mate for life, but there's a lot of fooling around at territory boundaries. 

Coonan also took a wonderful photo of an Island Fox, which parks spokesperson Yvonne Menard encouraged me to share with one and all.  


Here's the newspaper story, as mentioned for the VC Star.

Ten years after the island fox nearly went extinct, the conservation group that first petitioned to get it listed as endangered said it will ask the Interior Department to recognize the small animal’s strong recovery.

“Right now what we are planning to propose is that on two of the islands, San Miguel and Santa Cruz, the subspecies of the island fox no longer be on the endangered species list at all, and on Santa Rosa Island and Santa Catalina Island, the island fox be downlisted, from endangered to threatened,” said Dave Garcelon, president of the Institute for Wildlife Studies.

Garcelon spoke Tuesday at the 16th annual meeting of the island fox Conservation Group in Ventura. At the meeting, wildlife biologists working for different land-owning groups on the islands, including the Navy, Nature Conservancy and National Park Service, reported that the six subspecies of the island fox — only found on the Channel Islands — has rebounded from near-extinction after a 95 percent decline in the 1990s.

On Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the islands readily accessible to the public, biologist Christie Boser estimated the island now supports a growing population of “around 1,100” of the curious little animals, which are popular with visitors and campers.

On San Miguel, the population is estimated at 575, on Santa Rosa Island, about 900, and on Catalina, about 1,800.

In the 1990s, for reasons that wildlife biologists did not understand at first, the island foxes began disappearing from the Channel Islands. On Catalina Island they were devastated by a canine disease that was traced, after an animal autopsy, to a form of distemper carried by raccoons from the mainland.

On Santa Cruz and other islands off the Ventura coast, the use of radio collars revealed to biologists that Golden eagles were preying on the foxes.

An extensive recovery effort was launched in 1999, beginning with a captive breeding program for the handful of the remaining San Miguel island fox subspecies. At the same time, a team of biologists worked to trap and remove the Golden Eagles, thirteen of which were released into the wild on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, in Northern California.

On Santa Cruz Island, an estimated 6,000 feral pigs were eradicated in 2005-06, so Bald Eagles, which feed mostly on fish, could be re-established on the islands. Today, about 40 Bald eagles — which repel Golden eagles — inhabit the islands, according to spokesperson Yvonne Menard.

Opening the meeting, Russell Galipeau, superintendent of the Channel Islands National Park, praised the wildlife experts for their work over the past quarter century.

“What you have shown is that the Endangered Species Act can work,” Galipeau said. “Keep in mind that there are adverse events associated with the Endangered Species Act, but there is also hope in this great story.”

Robert McMorran, of the Ventura office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, warned the working group that his agency would not be able to act on the petition to “delist” this year. He read from a memo issued from the regional office to agency employees telling them that due to funding restrictions and lawsuits filed under the Endangered Species Act, “our primary and perhaps only focus will be on meeting court orders.”

“I would hate to think that all of our work didn’t get this species off the endangered species list,” said Tim Coonan, who leads the recovery effort for the National Park Service. “Because it deserves to. It’s been one of the quickest recoveries of a species ever. So when you hear of the possibility of no delisting because Fish and Wildlife can only act on court orders, it’s kind of demoralizing.

“On the other hand, thanks to the monitoring and the hard work of a lot of people, we know that these guys have recovered, and that’s a separate and parallel reality.”

© 2014 Ventura County Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. 

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Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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