Saving California’s Island Fox

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^Top image: California’s island fox was recently removed from the endangered species list. Credit: National Park Service/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Once teetering on the brink of extinction, the rare island fox of California’s Channel Islands has made the quickest recovery yet for a North American mammal in the history of the Endangered Species Act. In 2000, only 55 island foxes lived on Santa Cruz Island, and another 15 of the animals lived on the chain’s two northern islands. In 2004, the island fox was formally listed as endangered and was given a 50 percent chance of becoming extinct within a decade. An intense recovery program, however, achieved the difficult feat of recovering the species. The program included breeding the island fox in captivity, vaccinating the foxes, removing feral pigs from the islands, and relocating a number of golden eagles, which are invasive predators from the California mainland. The conservation efforts restored the Channel Islands’ fox population to more than 4,100, and the animal was removed from endangered species protection in August 2016.

The island fox is closely related to the common gray fox of the southern United States. Like the gray fox, the island fox has gray coloring on the back, rust coloring on the sides, and is white underneath. The face has distinctive black, white, and reddish-brown patterns. The island fox weighs just 3 to 5 pounds (1.4 to 2.3 kilograms) and stands about a foot (30.5 centimeters) tall. It is one of the smallest canid species in the world. The Canidae family includes coyotes, foxes, jackals, wolves, and the domestic dog. Island foxes exist only on six of the eight Channel Islands off the southern California coast. The only carnivore unique to California, island foxes feed on beetles, crickets, earwigs, mice, and the occasional crab. They also eat the fruits of cactus, manzanita, saltbush, and other plants.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 protects endangered and threatened wildlife and plants in the United States from hunting, collecting, and other activities that harm them or their habitats. Since this law was enacted, the numbers of such endangered animals as alligators, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons have recovered enough to be reclassified as threatened or removed from the endangered list altogether. Prior to the speedy recovery of the island fox, Steller’s sea lion was the quickest species to recover under the Endangered Species Act. Steller’s sea lion spent 23 years on the endangered list; the island fox took just 12 years to recover.

Thanks to the intensive efforts of the Nature Conservancy, the Institute for Wildlife Studies, and the Channel Islands National Park (plus hundreds of individual volunteers), the island fox has been saved from extinction—and in record time. The fox-saving efforts also had a side benefit: The removal of feral pigs allowed many rare plants native only to the Channel Islands to gain strength as well.

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