Tiny foxes rescued from extinction
The story of Channel Island foxes could have been one about extinction. Some time in the last decade we might have written about how several unique populations of four-pound, foot-tall carnivores ceased to exist in their only known home, southern California’s Channel Islands National Park. We’d wonder what went wrong, and how we allowed the Channel Island Fox to go the way of the dodo, or the Caribbean monk seal.
"We're talking a matter of months or weeks maybe before these populations disappear,” University of California-Los Angeles biologist Robert K. Wayne told the L.A. Times in 1999. “The situation is really in a crisis mode. We don't know if we are going to save them or not."
At that time there were only six known foxes remaining on San Miguel Island, where there were 450 five years before. The other two islands in the park, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa had only a few dozen.
But less than a decade later we’re writing a success story, instead of another woeful tale of how we failed yet another species. After an intense ecosystem restoration effort, the superintendent of Channel Islands National Park recently called the fox restoration, “one of the quickest recoveries of an endangered species in the history of the Endangered Species Act.” And biologists are on the verge of declaring Channel Island foxes recovered. There are now around 1,300 foxes on Santa Cruz Island, 500 on San Miguel Island, and 600 on Santa Rosa Island, and the populations appear to be stable. But getting there took unwinding over a century of human meddling with the island’s ecosystem, and dramatic interventions to undo past wrongs that were killing off the foxes.
It started in the 19th century, with settlers introducing outside species to the confines of the Channel Islands. Not rats or cats in this case, but pigs—pigs gone wild. The pigs were well established by the 1950’s when the insecticide DDT was working its way into the nation’s raptor populations, including bald eagles on the island chain. DDT killed off the islands’ bald eagles and left room for golden eagles to move in. Bald eagles hunt prey over water, but golden eagles go for land-based meals—like pigs, and four-pound foxes that are naïve to predators.
Recovery efforts began in 1999, after an endangered species A-Team came together and swept all but one of the remaining foxes on San Miguel, and Santa Rosa Islands into captivity, and set up a breeding program on Santa Cruz Island. In spite of its rarity, budgetary paralysis kept the fox of the endangered species list until 2004, when four of the six subspecies were listed.
With the foxes breeding in captivity, researchers began a massive effort to restore the island to something more similar to pre-settlement conditions. When Kim Todd covered the fox’s story for High Country News over 5,000 feral pigs had been removed from the islands, but not without controversy. Then, the park service was also just coming out of a debate about how to deal with the golden eagles. The question was whether to take the more straightforward, at least from a logistical perspective, path of killing golden eagles, or go to heroic lengths to relocate them. Since offing eagles would have been very controversial, it didn’t take long to rule out that possibility, and 44 of the birds were relocated to the Sierra Nevada. Then, from 2002 to 2006, bald eagles were re-introduced to the islands, where 40 birds are now residents. The Nature Conservancy, a partner in the restoration, calls it “one of the fastest and most effective endangered species recovery programs in U.S. history.”
The Channel Islands restoration and fox recovery is remarkable because the conditions that imperiled the foxes read like a laundry list of modern ecosystem woes: invasive and introduced species, overgrazing, and pollution. The ecosystem seemed ready to spiral into collapse, but over a decade of diligence has brought the islands back into balance.
While it’s a heartening story, it gets at the scale of what it takes to rescue special places, and species, once we’ve wronged them. Santa Cruz Island is only 22 miles long and 2 to 6 miles wide, it’s isolated, and pigs aren’t likely to return. If that island took over a decade of hard work to make room for foxes again, then what should we expect for other ecosystem restoration projects? That makes it sobering to think of the many other places that we’d like to conserve or restore, where animals are harder to track than foxes on islands, where there are more interactions between species, and where there’s no ocean to keep the invasive species you just eradicated from wandering, blowing or being carried back in.
Most people will never visit the Channel Islands, but their story can serve to inspire us about getting back what’s almost lost, and also serve as a cautionary tale about how difficult, and uncertain, it is to restore even a self-contained ecosystem after we’ve run roughshod over it.
Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News intern.
Channel Island fox photo courtesy of the National Park Service.