Story and photos by Chuck Graham
On a solo kayak trip circumnavigating Santa Cruz Island, the largest isle off the California Coast and part of the Channel Islands National Park, I landed inside a nameless cove where a freshwater spring and the ocean converged. I quickly realized I would have to share the year-round water source with one of the most endangered animals on the planet: the island fox.
That evening, lying in my tent I watched an inquisitive island fox effortlessly scale the outside wall of my 2-person dome tent, easily maneuvering between the drenched rain fly and the roof. Once on the roof we stared at each other, the housecat-sized island fox searching for a way in. When it was finally satisfied that there was no way inside, it bounded down the other side of my tent to investigate the rest of the campground on Santa Cruz Island.
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 still survived in the wild on the mountainous Santa Cruz Island. Even more gripping was that only 15 foxes remained on each of the nearby Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands. The 3-to-5-pound island fox was quickly spiraling into 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, one of the rarest foxes in the world has exceeded all expectations and was removed from the Endangered Species List August 11, 2016. 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 just over 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 quite rare to see one of the cinnamon-colored foxes bounding through a campground or nimbly scaling up a spindly fig tree. It was a time when opportunistic, non-native golden eagles ruled the skies, preying upon the three unsuspecting subspecies of island foxes. By 2004 all three subspecies of island foxes at the national park 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 Friends of the Island Fox, a non-profit for everything island fox. "There were actions on the ground even before the island fox was listed," Coonan said.
Beginning in 1999 and into the early part of the 21st century, a four-pronged effort ensued that 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. Those captive breeding facilities are still standing on each of the three islands in the event there's a distemper outbreak or if some other stressor arises on the chain.
The restoration of bald eagles – extinct from the islands for 50 years due to DDT poisoning – occurred from 2002 – 2006, allowing the iconic raptors to reestablish historic island territories. Bald eagles also help keep 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 rocky islet. Eventually all 43 golden eagles were trapped and relocated to the Northeastern California mainland; bald eagles eat fish, not catlike island foxes.
By 2008 the last of the feral pigs were eradicated from Santa Cruz Island by a company in New Zealand called Pro Hunt, which specializes in eradicating non-native animals from islands. That opened the door for island foxes to flourish across the archipelago, 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 shows a population infusion of 2,100 animals on the largest, most biodiverse island off the California Coast. THe numbers have impressed biologists considering the persistent drought conditions that have 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."
They're also successful at searching kayaks. Those who want to explore the richly diverse archipelago will have to get used to these little rascals sniffing around their boats.
More from C&K