Good news! Not just one, but three subspecies of the island fox are in consideration for being removed from the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because the conservation efforts were successful! What are island foxes, you say? Island foxes are small carnivores endemic to the Channel Islands, a chain of islands off the coast of southern California. Each island is home to each subspecies.

The foxes are known to have lived on the islands for at least 6,000 years, but in the ‘90s, a catastrophic drop in their population threatened four out of six subspecies with extinction. At one point, two island populations each had only 15 individuals. The main cause of the foxes’ massive population decline was traced to the golden eagles that had begun colonizing the islands from the ‘80s. The cat-sized foxes just had no defense against apex predators with 7ft wingspans.

To raise the fox population back up to previous levels, the golden eagle population was relocated in a concerted effort over several years. To make sure that they would not return, bald eagles were reintroduced to the islands around the same time. Bald eagles, which are territorial rivals of golden eagles, had previously lived on the islands until DDT and human actions caused a local extinction of the species in the ‘50s. Because bald eagles primarily subsist on hunting fish and not foxes, they were a critical part of the effort to save the small mammal. The reintroduction was a success, and bald eagles are keeping golden eagles out of the Channel Islands.

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The foxes, meanwhile, were captured and bred in captivity. Healthy individuals were vaccinated against canine distemper—a debilitating disease that that nearly killed off the Santa Catalina population of the fox—and were released, some fitted with radio collars so that the effectiveness of the conservation efforts could be monitored.

Now, a little over a decade since the island fox was declared endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thinks that the species has a self-sustaining wild population again. A human mistake nearly wiped out a very unique species, but thanks to the vigilance of biologists, researchers, and veterinarians, the foxes are on the mend. Hopefully the success of the island fox repopulation program increases the awareness for other conservation efforts, and hopefully they’ll get their happy ending too.

In the meantime, I plan to visit the foxes again one day. Several Channel Islands are currently accessible by ferrys. Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the chain, is part of the Channel Islands National Park. Santa Catalina Island (or just Catalina by us locals) has permanent human settlements.


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