Just twelve years ago, researchers feared that the California Island fox, a species about the size of a cat inhabiting a group of islands off the Southern California coast, was toast. Non-native predators and pesticides had dramatically reduced their ranks. The few that remained were placed on the endangered species list.
Now, thanks to an aggressive recovery effort, U.S. wildlife officials have removed three subspecies on San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands from the endangered list. A fourth subspecies, the Santa Catalina Island fox, has been upgraded from "endangered" to "threatened."
Officials say the Island foxes' recovery is the fastest of any mammal ever listed under the Endangered Species Act.
"We're ecstatic that we've reached this point so quickly," Steve Henry, field supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's office in Ventura told the Associated Press.
Researchers say the Channel Islands have been home to the diminutive Island fox for thousands of years, but no one knows how they wound up there in the first place. They do know that in the 19th Century, ranchers and farmers introduced non-native pigs, cattle and sheep. Later, DDT wiped out the native, fish-eating (and therefore fox-friendly) bald eagle. In its place came the non-native golden eagle that preyed on feral pigs and island foxes.
By 2000, only a few dozen island foxes remained.
The recovery effort was a collaboration between the National Park Service, Nature Conservancy and Catalina Island Conservancy in a multi-stage program involving relocating the golden eagles, eliminating feral pigs, and then trapping and captive-breeding the Island foxes.
The pigs had to go first. Some animal rights groups weren't happy that thousands were tracked by helicopters and shot by snipers. With the pigs gone, the golden eagle departed, some voluntarily, others not.
"Re-introducing the bald eagle helped evict the golden eagle because the bald eagle is dominant and it eats fish, not foxes," said Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Other golden eagles were trapped and relocated."
By 2008, about a year after the pigs were eliminated, some 230 captive-bred foxes were released into the wild. There are now almost 6,000 on the four islands.
Miller said the on-going threat of disease, particularly canine distemper, is still a problem and the reason why the Catalina Island fox is still considered a threatened species. A vaccination effort is underway.