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Recovery of Island foxes a ‘historic success’; officials recommend removing them from endangered species list

Island fox close up. Photo by Hauf/timhaufphotography.com

  • One of America’s rarest mammals, the Island fox is found only on six Channel Islands off the coast of southern California.
  • In the 1990s, four subspecies of the foxes suffered catastrophic declines mainly due to predation by golden eagles.
  • Now, following an aggressive recovery plan resulting in the “fastest successful recovery for any Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed mammal in the United States”, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to remove three subspecies from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife, and downlist one subspecies from Endangered to Threatened.

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal to remove three subspecies of the island fox from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife. These include island foxes found on San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands. The Service is also proposing to downlist the island fox subspecies on Santa Catalina Island from “endangered” to “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act.

This proposal follows the “fastest successful recovery for any Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed mammal in the United States,” the Service said in a statement, and the removal of the three fox subspecies would be a “historic success for the multiple partners involved in recovery efforts.”

“The Endangered Species Act has prevented the extinction of more than 99 percent of species under its protection and put hundreds more on the road to recovery,” Tierra Curry, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Thanks to its remarkable power, we can celebrate the successful recovery of the island foxes.”

Island fox populations have recovered following an aggressive recovery plan. Photo courtesy of Chuck Graham.

One of America’s rarest mammals, the Island fox is found only on six Channel Islands off the coast of southern California. It has most likely descended from mainland gray foxes, scientists say, and are one of the smallest canids in the world.

In the 1990s, four subspecies of the foxes suffered catastrophic declines mainly due to predation by golden eagles. By 2000, only 15 individuals of island foxes remained on San Miguel and Santa Rosa Islands, while fewer than 80 individuals remained on Santa Cruz Island. Following this decline, four fox subspecies on San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Santa Catalina Islands were listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2004.

The U.S. National Park Service, Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Navy launched an aggressive recovery plan for the foxes. They cleared feral pigs from the islands that were attracting the predatory golden eagles. They also removed resident golden eagles, re-established bald eagles on the islands, bred the island foxes in captivity and reintroduced them back to the islands.

Soon, fox populations rebounded. According to the IUCN, the total population of mature individuals of the foxes increased from less than 1,500 in 2002 to more than 4,000 in 2011, with annual survival rates of more than 85 percent.

A Santa Cruz Island fox roams across the terrain of Santa Cruz Island. Photo courtesy of Dan Richards/NPS.

The three fox subspecies found on San Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island and Santa Cruz Island are believed to have completely recovered, according to the Service. However, the Santa Catalina island fox will retain protection as a threatened species, the statement said, because of the potential threat of diseases introduced by stowaway raccoons or visitors letting their dogs off leash. Canine distemper has previously caused declines in fox population on the Santa Catalina Island.

“The remarkable recovery efforts of land managers and conservation partners over the past two decades on behalf of the Channel Island fox is the reason for this historic recovery success,” Dan Ashe, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement. “The speed at which these subspecies have recovered points to the strength of the ESA in focusing conservation attention and catalyzing recovery actions, and demonstrates what we can achieve together.”