Island Foxes Freed: As I watched, the last 10 captive-bred Santa Cruz Island foxes were released Monday, and quick as cats they scampered to freedom in the wild.
The pups, about the size of house cats and with long, luxuriant tails, hesitated to leave their temporary cages, but finally emerged, sniffed the ground, and scooted off.
In 2000 fewer than 100 of the endangered foxes were left on the island, fast-becoming tasty morsels for voracious golden eagles. With Monday’s release there are about 300, now that the eagles are gone.
The captive breeding program, set up as insurance against the loss of foxes from golden eagles, and which added about 85 pups before Monday, is ending now that the fox numbers have rebounded so quickly. The aim is to get the fox population to reach the historical levels of about 1,500.
Also gone are the 36,000 feral sheep and about 5,000 wild pigs killed by hunters imported by the Park Service and the non-profit Nature Conservancy. The domestic sheep – turned wild after ranching was abandoned decades ago – were eating the island down to the nub, destroying habitats while the pigs were uprooting what was left.
The non-native eagles, their meals on the hoof gone, have been relocated to the mainland, far from the islands.
Saving the foxes on three islands and protecting the ecosystem has not come cheap. Officials questioned Monday estimated the bill to be $18 million, including $10 million from the Park Service and $8 million from the non-profit Conservancy, which owns 90 percent of the island. The Park Service owns the eastern tip.
Sheep and pig killings were highly controversial. Critics attacked the program as a slaughtering of the innocent, claiming that the animals had a right to live there unmolested, regardless of their damage to the island ecosystem and destruction of the foxes.
The $18 million figure includes saving the foxes on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel islands, killing the sheep and pigs, transplanting the golden eagles, importing native bald eagles (which do not eat foxes), and protecting the habitat.
But the National Park Service, Nature Conservancy, and other naturalists who gathered at the island Monday were proud of the results. Before the release, Channel Islands National Park Superintendent Russell Galipeau commented, “I’ll defend every dime spent, rather than have the foxes become extinct. We’re protecting American values.”
“Not to do it would have been a mistake,” said Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, observing the release with 2nd District County Supervisor Janet Wolf, whose district the island falls under and who joked that she didn’t walk the precincts there. The island actually has four voters.
All the pups released Monday were fitted with radio collars so they can be monitored.
And the island has a new lease on life. During a Jeep ride that took us bouncing over the twisting dirt roads of the rugged island, Dr. Lotus Vermeer, Nature Conservancy Santa Cruz Island project director, excitedly pointed to sprouting oaks.
“We’ve never seen seedling oaks before,” she told me. “The pigs loved the acorns,” gobbling them before they could sprout, she said.
We drove through a stand of Bishop Pines, all about the same size because they’d never had a chance to grow taller due to gnawing by sheep.
The foxes, which never had a predator until the golden eagles arrived, are known for their lack of fear of humans. On a trip some years ago, one stood by the roadside as we drove by, seemingly as curious about us as we were about it. On Monday, aside from the ten pups released, I saw none during our drive.
Barney Brantingham can be reached at email@example.com or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.