It wasn’t long ago when the Channel Islands National Park was nearly void of the tiny, endemic island fox, the largest land predator on the windswept northern chain. At the turn of the century, as few as 55 foxes barely survived in the wild on Santa Cruz Island; only 15 remained on nearby Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands. One of the rarest foxes in the world was freefalling toward extinction.
However, with multiple agencies pulling together like the Channel Islands National Park, The Nature Conservancy, The Institute for Wildlife Studies, among others, and with hundreds of volunteers, the island fox has exceeded all expectations and is being removed from the Endangered Species List. In fact, its removal is the quickest recovery of a land mammal in the history of the Endangered Species Act, which was established by Congress 40 years ago.
“We were in fear of losing the island fox,” said Russell Galipeau, superintendent of the Channel Islands National Park since 2003. “Tim Coonan brought me an island fox recovery plan, and I knew if we didn’t implement it right away that it was going to be a big challenge to save the fox.”
That was 17 years ago, when it was actually rare to see one of the cinnamon-colored animals bounding through a campground or nimbly scaling up a fig tree. It was a time when opportunistic, non-native golden eagles ruled the skies. By 2004, all three subspecies of island fox had been added to the Endangered Species List.
“The cooperative conservation efforts that occurred was a real role model,” said Tim Coonan, who for 23 years was the lead terrestrial biologist at the Channel Islands National Park, and spearheaded island fox recovery from 1999 until he retired in 2015. He now heads the Friends of the Island Fox program. “There were actions on the ground immediately, even before the island fox was listed.”
Beginning in 1999 and into the early part of the 21st century, a four-pronged effort returned an ecological balance to the craggy, volcanic isles. Aggressive captive breeding took place for each subspecies of island fox, because if one subspecies was lost, then it was gone forever.
The restoration of bald eagles – extinct from the islands for 50 years due to DDT poisoning – occurred from 2002 to 2006, allowing the iconic raptors to reestablish historic island territories. They also helped keep the golden eagles at bay, which were lured from the mainland by the feral pig population on Santa Cruz Island. That population had swelled to roughly 5,000 swine running roughshod across the mountainous islet. Eventually all 43 golden eagles were trapped and relocated to the California mainland. Bald eagles eat fish, not island foxes.
By 2008, the last of the feral pigs were eradicated from Santa Cruz, opening the door for island foxes to flourish, which they have. Initially, it was thought that Santa Cruz Island had a carrying capacity of approximately 1,200 to 1,500 island foxes, but estimates from 2015 show a population infusion of 2,100 animals on the largest, most biodiverse island off the California Coast. It’s an impressive figure, considering the intense drought that has gripped the Golden State the last several years.
“This is super exciting,” said Ashley Spratt, public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s a sign of hope as a conservation community coming together, pooling their resources. The island fox is a symbol for the islands. It’s a real success story.”