Fighting For Foxes

A disastrous chain of events nearly wiped out California’s diminutive island fox. Scientists hope it’s not too late to undo the damage

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Whether the bald eagles are directly responsible for driving away golden eagles is uncertain, but at least three golden eagle pairs had abandoned their nests on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands as of April 2004. “We haven’t seen a new golden eagle since February 2004,” says Coonan.

Even so, the islands are still no place for foxes. In late November 2003, after 29 golden eagles had been removed from Santa Cruz, the biologists released nine captive-reared, radio-collared Channel Islands foxes. Five were killed by golden eagles between December 21, 2003, and January 4, 2004. “The little foxes spent three or so weeks in the field, but when the goldens killed some of them, we had to bring them in,” Coonan says.

By February 2004, the remaining captive-bred foxes were in pens on Santa Cruz, cared for by biologists with the National Park Service, which owns part of the island chain. Until their fate is more secure, they will stay caged, enjoying magnificent views from their mesh enclosures. Today on Santa Cruz Island, 44 captive foxes look out on a lilac-covered hill to the south and a stand of eucalyptus trees to the north. Park officials hope that the designation of the animal as an endangered species will attract attention—and funding—to the recovery project, which the Park Service estimates may cost more than a million dollars next year.

Species on the brink of extinction rarely make rapid recoveries. But scientists and conservationists are cautiously optimistic that the foxes on the northern Channel Islands have a chance, now that steps to restore some of the traditional balance to the islands’ animal communities have been taken. “Perhaps we don’t have to wait for a lengthy time for things to turn around,” says Channel IslandsNational Park superintendent Russell Galipeau. “[I hope] we will live to see the results.”

About Andrew Curry
Andrew Curry

Andrew Curry is a Berlin-based journalist who writes about science and history for a variety of publications, including National Geographic, Nature, and Wired. He is a contributing editor at Archaeology and has visited archaeological excavations on five continents. (Photo Credit: Jennifer Porto)

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