California’s Tiny Island Foxes Break Record for Fast Recovery

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says three of the four subspecies of foxes living on the Channel Islands are no longer endangered.
Channel Islands foxes. (Photo: Chuck Graham/USFWS via Flickr)
Feb 13, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The small foxes with squished faces endemic to California’s Channel Islands were in danger of extinction just over a decade ago.

But in a win for the gray mammals, federal wildlife officials announced Friday that three of the four subspecies of Channel Islands foxes have recovered so well that they are ready to come off the Endangered Species List.

“The incredible efforts by land managers and conservation groups have turned this tragedy into an incredible success story,” said Robert McMorran, an island fox biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “And now we’re seeing the fastest recovery by any mammal listed under the Endangered Species Act.”

RELATED: How the California Island Fox Outfoxed Extinction

In 2004, Channel Islands fox numbers had fallen 90 percent. The decline was linked largely to the invasion of golden eagles to the islands in the late 1990s. The now-banned chemical DDT decimated the island’s native bald eagle population, which mainly fed on fish. With bald eagles out of the picture, golden eagles took over, preying on land-based animals such as foxes. The spread of canine distemper virus from mainland raccoons (known for hitching rides on sailboats to cross the channel) further decimated populations on Santa Catalina Island.

Federal and local wildlife groups developed programs to save the species, including the nonlethal removal of golden eagles from the islands, vaccinating foxes against canine distemper, and establishing a captive breeding program for foxes to be released back into the wild.

Across the four islands, the low point for foxes came in 1999, with just 15 animals recorded on San Miguel Island, 15 on Santa Rosa Island, 55 on Santa Cruz Island, and 103 on Santa Catalina Island.

By 2014, populations had rebounded to 500 on San Miguel Island, 800 on Santa Rosa Island, 2,500 on Santa Cruz Island, and 1,700 on Santa Catalina Island.

With distemper still affecting Catalina’s fox population, FWS officials are proposing to keep that subspecies of fox protected under the Endangered Species Act but plan to downgrade it from endangered to threatened.

The proposal is now up for a 60-day public comment period, and a final decision could be made within a year.