Island fox sniffs the land after emerging from cage.
Barney Brantingham

Santa Cruz Island’s Foxes Freed: Triumph or Tragedy? After 36,000 feral sheep and about 5,000 pigs were killed on Santa Cruz Island-and $18 million spent-the rare and endangered Channel Island foxes are making a comeback from near-extinction and the island’s ecosystem is regenerating from crisis.

The sheep and pig killings were highly controversial. Critics attacked the program as slaughter of the innocent, claiming that the animals had a right to live on the island unmolested regardless of the damage they inflicted, which included wiping out the native foxes.

On the Beat

But representatives of the National Park Service and Nature Conservancy and other naturalists who gathered on Santa Cruz Island last Monday hailed the comeback of the furry foxes, which are smaller than their mainland cousins. Russell Galipeau, Channel Islands National Park superintendent, commented: “I’ll defend every dime spent, rather than have the foxes become extinct. We’re protecting American values.”

I watched as the last 10 captive-bred Island foxes were released. The six-month-old 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 then, quick as cats, scampered to freedom in the wild.

In 2000, fewer than 100 of the endangered foxes were left on the island, mostly due to being tasty morsels for voracious golden eagles. With Monday’s release, however, there are now about 300; the aim is to achieve the historic level of about 1,500 foxes.

The captive breeding program-set up as insurance against the loss of foxes eaten by golden eagles (the non-native eagles were relocated to northern California) and which had already released about 85 pups before last Monday-will end now that the fox numbers are rebounding so quickly.

Also gone from the islands are the sheep and pigs, killed by hunters hired by the Park Service and the Nature Conservancy. The domestic sheep, gone wild after ranching was abandoned decades ago, were eating the island down to the nub, destroying habitat, and the pigs were uprooting what was left.

Saving the foxes on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel islands and protecting the ecosystems have not come cheap. Officials questioned about the matter estimated the bill at $18 million, with $10 million contributed by the Park Service and $8 million by the nonprofit Conservancy, which owns 90 percent of Santa Cruz Island. (The Park Service owns the eastern tip.) The $18 million figure includes saving the foxes on the three islands, killing the sheep and pigs, transplanting the golden eagles, importing native bald eagles (which do not eat foxes), and protecting the habitat.

“Not to do it would have been a mistake,” said U.S. Representative Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, observing the fox release with 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf, whose district includes the island and who joked that she didn’t walk precincts there.

And Santa Cruz Island has a new lease on life. During a jeep ride, as we bounced 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 also 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.

Honor for Jerry Roberts: The former editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press, who resigned last year during the meltdown, will be honored by the national writers’ group PEN on November 6 at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Roberts, former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, will receive the prestigious First Amendment Award, according to South Coast journalist Ann Bardach, who’s on PEN’s advisory board.

Going Deep: When Chuck Graham, former editor of Blue Edge surfing periodical, split from the News-Press, he took his staff with him. Now he’s started Deep (, a magazine dedicated to area surfing. Blue Edge continues as a NP publication.

Empty Bowls: To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Empty Bowls fundraiser for the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, co-chairs Danyel Dean and Marrillee Ford have created limited-edition hand-painted bowls. Early-bird ticket buyers for the November 4 event at Rockwood Woman’s Club are gobbling up these premium packages, I hear. The $100 packages include an entry ticket, a designer bowl, a package of raffle tickets, and a special cloth bag, according to Diane Durst of the Foodbank. Regular tickets are $25. Call 967-5741 x104. (Empty Bowls always sells out; attendees are fed soup and bread from area restaurants, get a bowl made by area potters to keep, and receive a lot of satisfaction by helping a good cause.) Seatings are at 11 a.m., noon, and 1 p.m.


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