Saving an island fox could be a benchmark


The recovery of the endangered fox on Channel Islands National Park off the Southern California coast might be a benchmark for modern conservation. With the cinnamon-colored fox due to come off the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list in about two years, this could be the fastest recovery of a land mammal in the history of the Endangered Species Act.

It nearly didn’t happen. Santa Cruz Island, which had been the most biologically diverse of eight islands in the Channel Islands chain, was virtually denuded by feral sheep and pigs by the 1990s. When I first started surfing and kayaking around there in the late 1980s, I assumed the island had always looked like a wasteland. But it was an unnatural environment.

Thousands of feral animals -- remnants of ranching -- had pushed the endemic island fox to the brink of extinction.  After sheep were eradicated in 1998, there was a noticeable difference in the return of island vegetation, but the feral pigs weren’t touched, because support for saving the 5,000 animals was widespread. The Santa Barbara News Press, for example, protested their eradication in an editorial, and animal-rights activists demonstrated their support of the pigs by flying a small plane with a banner above the Ventura Harbor. Its message: “Save the pigs.” 

In 1999, I decided to see for myself what effects the pigs were having on the islands, so I kayaked around the four northern islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park.  During the nine days and 200 miles of paddling around what has now come to be known as “the Galapagos Islands of the north,” I soon realized that I was seeing a lot more scruffy swine than island foxes. 

In fact, I saw no foxes on Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands. Instead, I watched pigs on Santa Cruz Island working like four-legged rototillers to uproot endemic island greenery and archaeological sites -- even on the beach at low tide. Where were the island foxes?

When I returned home, I found out the answer. Non-native golden eagles had been lured to the island by the presence of the pigs; then the birds quickly discovered it was a lot easier to catch foxes than pigs. Island foxes had been the largest land predator across the chain but hadn’t been preyed on for centuries until the eagles discovered them. Bald eagles, poisoned by DDT, had been missing from the chain since the 1960s.

Historically, Santa Cruz Island had once been home to about 1,500 island foxes, with 1,000 on Santa Rosa and 400 on San Miguel Islands, but the eagles drastically reduced those numbers. By the time the island fox was added to the endangered list in 2002, it had almost vanished: There were 55 foxes on Santa Cruz, and 15 each on Santa Rosa and San Miguel.

Fortunately, the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies didn’t wait until the animals were listed as endangered to begin the recovery process.  Captive breeding of island foxes began on each island in 1999. This was important because each island fox population is a subspecies; if one population is lost, then it is gone forever.

But what to do about all those hungry golden eagles? The 43 raptors that had colonized the chain were trapped, tagged and relocated back to the northeastern California mainland, and beginning in 2002, bald eagles were returned to their historic territories across the chain. Bald eagles, it turns out, keep golden eagles at bay and eat fish, not island foxes. 

In addition, Prohunt, a company out of New Zealand specializing in the eradication of non-native animals from islands, was hired to eradicate the feral pig population from Santa Cruz.  By the spring of 2008, its job was done, and that island had become pig-free.

Today, the islands are brimming with island foxes, with 1,200 on Santa Cruz, 700 on Santa Rosa and 500 on San Miguel. There has been little or no threat of golden eagle predation, and the bald eagle population in the national park hovers in the 50s. Island flora has rebounded, too, so that now there’s a virtual botanical garden of giant coreopsis flowers, island buckwheat and paintbrush, with groves of island oaks and manzanita.

I know it’s a pipedream, but wouldn’t it be great to see the rest of North America make a serious effort to save its endangered species? It took a lot of planning and determination, but success has come to Channel Islands National Park. 

Chuck Graham is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a beach lifeguard, leads kayak tours at the Channel Islands National Park, and freelances for several publications,

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