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California Island Foxes Recover From Near Extinction

Photo from Flickr

Native foxes on the Channel Islands off the coast of California were on the brink of extinction just a few decades ago.

Now, thanks to extensive conservation efforts, US Wildlife officials have removed three island fox subspecies from the list of federally endangered species as their numbers have swelled considerably, making this the fastest comeback of any mammal on the Endangered Species Act list, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The Channel Island foxes on four islands – Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel and Santa Catalina – fell sharply in numbers during the ’90s. This was caused by settlers introducing pigs to the islands, which in turn attracted golden eagles, the foxes’ number one predator.

Sustained efforts, including breeding the foxes in captivity and removing their predators, have been extremely successful in keeping the foxes alive.

The Department of the Interior has called their recovery the fastest rescue ever.

A canine distemper outbreak, along with the golden eagles, caused the fox population in Santa Rosa to drop from 1,780 to just 15, and in San Miguel, from 450 to 15. In 2004, the foxes were given a 50% chance of becoming extinct in the next ten years, putting them on the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The alarming situation brought together over 300 animal and conservation organizations, including the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy, in an effort to bring the number of foxes up and prevent extinction. Extreme measures had to be taken, such as removing pigs from the islands, relocating golden eagles and bringing back bald eagles to deter golden eagle activity.

Channel Island foxes are physically similar to the gray fox on the mainland. They are thought to have first arrived on the islands thousands of years ago, thriving on lizards, mice and other small animals that were abundant. When humans arrived in the 19th century bringing pigs, golden eagles began swooping down on both pigs and foxes.

Christina Boser of the Nature Conservancy says the island foxes have a “naive, adorable little personality.”

There are over 700 foxes now on San Miguel, 1,200 on Santa Rosa and 2,100 on Santa Cruz – a far cry from the double digits some ten years ago. The rapid recovery is now serving as a model for future conservation efforts.

Scott Morrison, director of Conservation Science at the Nature Conservancy, says, “Many aspects of this recovery effort – from its scientific rigor to the collaborative enterprise that drove it – can serve as model [sic] to advance conservation elsewhere.”

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