These California Island Foxes Have Bounced Back From Near Extinction

It’s the fastest recovery of any endangered mammal species protected under federal law.
Island foxes. (Photo: Chuck Graham)
Aug 13, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Twelve years ago, a diminutive and rare fox native to California’s Channel Islands was about to vanish forever.

Today, three out of four subspecies of the Channel Island fox have recovered so well that on Thursday the Obama administration announced that they had been taken off the federal endangered species list.

Wildlife managers are celebrating the recovery of the foxes of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz islands as the fastest ever achieved for any mammal species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Such recovery efforts typically take at least 25 years.

“It’s remarkable to think that in 2004, these foxes were given a 50 percent chance of going extinct in the next decade. Yet here we are today, declaring three of the four subspecies recovered and the fourth on its way,” Dan Ashe, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement.

RELATED: California’s Tiny Island Foxes Break Record for Fast Recovery

Environmental pollution was indirectly responsible for much of the foxes’ population plummet in the late 1990s. After DDT contamination wiped out fish-eating bald eagles in the Channel Islands, golden eagles invaded their niche in the local food chain and hunted the foxes faster than they could reproduce. A canine distemper epidemic took a further toll on the foxes of Santa Catalina Island.

The total Channel Island fox population was around 3,700 in 1994. By 1999, it had declined to 188. San Miguel and Santa Rosa islands were down to 15 foxes each.

A coalition of federal wildlife officials and local conservation groups worked on multiple fronts to bring the fox back.

“[A]t the core of the recovery was a captive breeding and release program, which reintroduced 226 foxes to the wild,” the Department of the Interior noted in the statement. “As of 2015, there were approximately 700 foxes on San Miguel Island, 1,200 on Santa Rosa Island, and 2,100 on Santa Cruz Island. The Santa Catalina Island population is estimated at around 1,800 foxes; however, disease remains an ongoing threat to this subspecies.”

Other efforts included vaccinating the foxes against distemper, restoring the bald eagle population, and relocating the golden eagles.

Scientists recently reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that removing invasive species is one of the most effective strategies for saving an island’s native wildlife.