Just 10 years after the Channel Islands fox was listed by the federal government as an endangered species — and before the official recovery plan was ever even finalized — the furry critter is doing so well that experts now say those protections are no longer needed.
So announced Dave Garcelon of the Institute for Wildlife Studies to much applause from about 150 or so researchers and volunteers who had gathered in Ventura on Tuesday afternoon for the 16th annual meeting of the Island Fox Conservation Working Group. “This is a special circumstance,” said Garcelon, a few minutes after sharing his plans with the crowd. “I’m one of the cosigners of the original listing petition along with the Center for Biological Diversity. To also be petitioning delisting? I don’t think that’s ever happened before. Normally, you never live that long.”
In the 1990s, fox populations dwindled by nearly 95 percent across the Channel Islands archipelago, but the species is now successfully reproducing 90 percent of the time. There are an estimated 577 foxes on San Miguel Island, which exceeds the pre-decline levels, and the numbers are nearing pre-decline levels on both Santa Rosa Island (894 estimated foxes) and Santa Cruz Island, as well (1,100). “We feel they have biologically recovered,” said Tim Coonan, a biologist with the National Park Service, which oversees those three islands. “In fact, we’ve already stopped the recovery action, and we’re now in the intensive monitoring phase.”
Everyone appears to be in agreement, but the controversial part is that it still takes legal action to prompt delisting by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which gets sued so much that it can only prioritize court-mandated projects. That’s where Garcelon and the Institute for Wildlife Studies comes in with their delisting petition, which, if all goes perfectly, will still take at least two years to be approved. Following that, there will be five years of intensive monitoring, during which time the species will be immediately re-listed if it takes a significant dive. After that, everyone expects that the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy (which owns most of Santa Cruz Island), and the Catalina Island Conservancy (which owns most of Catalina) will continue to make sure the fox is okay.
The fox’s precipitous decline was due to the failing of the islands’ longtime ecosystem, a complicated web that involved the failure of native bald eagles to reproduce due to DDT contamination in the Pacific Ocean and the introduction of nonnative feral pigs to the islands. With the bald eagles gone and plenty of baby pigs to feed on, golden eagles arrived, and also preyed on foxes steadily. Diseases like distemper also contributed to the decline, but once bald eagles were reintroduced and golden eagles removed, the foxes began to thrive again.
Garcelon admits that the species will probably always be “conservation-reliant,” but he believes the delisting is still a critical step. “We need to show that the Endangered Species Act works when it does,” he said. “We need to have some in the plus column.”