by Christopher Lile and Kimber Hendrix
Off the coast of California, on the islands that make up one of the United States’ least visited National Parks, lives one of the smallest species of canid. Six of the eight Channel Islands are home to this animal, each with their own subspecies. In the last two decades, the Channel Island Foxes, Urocyon littoralis, have experienced one of the most remarkable recovery stories in U.S. history.
Decline of the Island Foxes
The story of the Island Fox’s decline is one that truly highlights the interconnectedness of ecosystems. From the 1940s – 1970s, DDT (a pesticide) was dumped off the coast of California. The aquatic life was quickly contaminated with DDT which, in turn, drastically affected the Bald Eagles living on the California coast and Channel Islands. Reliant upon fish consumption, Bald Eagles suffered the effect of DDT contamination through producing thinner eggshells. This resulted in vulnerability of their eggs and unborn offspring and the subsequent decline of Bald Eagles in the area. With Bald Eagles gone, the smaller Golden Eagles began making their homes on California’s coast and the Channel Islands. Unlike Bald Eagles, they were drawn to the islands for the feral pigs and foxes rather than the fish. The Channel Island foxes, not adapted for this new aerial predator, were quickly hunted to the brink of extinction. Feral pigs and sheep (introduced by humans in the 1850s) stimulated this rapid decline by decimating the native shrubs and vegetation that provided cover and shelter for the foxes.
Once numbering around 1,500, island fox numbers plummeted to fewer than 100 individuals in less than 10 years. Some islands had only 15 individuals remaining of their subspecies.
Recovery of the Island Foxes
Thankfully, the Channel Island Foxes were placed on the Endangered Species Act in 2004. This listing elevated their critical status and initiated swift action and teamwork by the National Park Service, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, and The Nature Conservancy to save the only carnivore unique to California.
The recovery strategy involved captive breeding programs, canine distemper vaccines, reintroduction of the bald eagle, removal of golden eagles and feral pigs, and restoration of native vegetation. These efforts allowed the island fox population to rebound so quickly that they were removed from the endangered species list in 2016. This was considered among the fastest and most successful recoveries of endangered species in United States history.
Today, approximately 10 percent of the channel island foxes are radio-collared to enable scientists to monitor and track the populations and provide annual rabies and canine distemper vaccines. Although the future of this island species is no longer in immediate danger, scientists have learned how quickly this small population can be decimated and are vigilant to any new threats they might face.
A Beacon of Hope
These tiny foxes represent a beacon of hope for imperiled species on the brink of extinction, especially other canids such as the Mexican Gray Wolf and Red Wolf. The story of the Channel Island Foxes also serves to remind us how important the Endangered Species Act is in preventing extinction. This single piece of legislation has elevated countless species on the brink of extinction to receive the immediate action needed for their protection and recovery. Wolf Park takes an active stance in support of the Endangered Species Act, not only for the grey wolf and other canids, but for all imperiled species.
In Memory of Hunter
Wolf Park is home to several species, including grey foxes. These individuals serve as ambassadors for their wild counterparts, both their own species and related species. As the most primitive canid alive today, grey foxes only have one close relative – the Channel Island Fox, who evolved from them. Our grey fox ambassadors often facilitate conversations about their island relatives. This connection prompted the idea to start a memorial fund to support Friends of the Island Fox, following the passing of our beloved grey fox Hunter. We hope that the conversations and memories Hunter created for our guests will continue to make a difference for the wild fox populations she represented.
If you wish to contribute to Hunter’s memorial fund and help the Channel Island Foxes, visit the Wolf Park Online Store Donate Section and write “Hunter Memoriam” in the notes.