Friday, September 29, 2023
Courthouse News Service
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Channel Island Foxes Recovering, Feds Say

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its plans to delist three recovered California foxes, and to downlist one fox subspecies from endangered to threatened status. The agency touted the delisting as the "fastest ever recovery of a mammal in the United States under the ESA," just 12 years since the foxes were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2004.

The San Miguel Island fox, Santa Rosa Island Fox and Santa Cruz Island fox of the Northern Channel Islands off the coast of southern California have recovered to sustainable levels, the agency said, and should now be delisted, or removed, from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.

A fourth fox, the Santa Catalina Island fox is sufficiently recovered to be downlisted from endangered to threatened status, according to the Service.

All four subspecies of the island fox, a smaller relative of the gray fox, "experienced precipitous population declines in the latter half of the 1990s," according to the action published Tuesday. Due to population declines of up to 95 percent, researchers considered the San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz foxes to be "critically endangered" by 1999, and the Santa Catalina fox joined that estimation in 2000, the proposed rule noted.

The decimation of the island fox populations was in large part attributed to "hyperpredation" by golden eagles, which were not native to the islands. The golden eagles took up the ecological niche vacated by native bald eagles, which were locally wiped out due to nesting failure caused by DDT pesticide poisoning, the action said. The pesticide was banned in the United States in 1972 after studies showed it caused eggshell thinning in species, such as the bald eagle, that prey on fish and other small animals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Bald eagles primarily prey on fish, smaller birds or carrion, thus posing little threat to island foxes. However, golden eagles are primarily specialized and terrestrial hunters, meaning they prey mainly on small rodents and mammals. The presence of nonnative prey species on the northern Channel Islands (such as feral pigs on Santa Cruz Island and mule deer and elk on Santa Rosa Island) attracted golden eagles to colonize the islands and to opportunistically prey on island foxes," Ashley Spratt, with the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, told Courthouse News. Island foxes weigh in at less than 4 and a half pounds, and are just about 5 inches tall at the shoulder, making them the smallest fox species in the United States.

The eradication of the golden eagle's non-native prey species and a successful capture and relocation program for the golden eagles has allowed the bald eagle to reclaim its ecological niche in the islands. "The relocation of golden eagles and removal of their prey base and the reestablishment of bald eagles to the islands played an important role in supporting island fox recovery," Spratt said.

Canine distemper virus, rabies and ear canal cancers caused by ear mite infestations have also played a role in the fox population declines.

Vaccination programs and ear mite treatments of foxes trapped for study have reduced these threats and they are considered to be controlled for the San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz foxes. The potential for disease outbreaks continues to threaten Santa Catalina foxes due to inadequate enforcement of controls on the transport of domestic and wild animals to and from the island, the proposal noted. Though the Santa Catalina fox has not recovered enough to delist it, the subspecies does meet the criteria to downlist it from an endangered species, to a threatened species. This represents an improvement in its status, the agency said.

Once the foxes were listed as endangered, the USFWS partnered with the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy and the Catalina Island Conservancy to implement the recovery plan.

"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," the Service's Director, Dan Ashe, said.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Service's most frequent litigant, expressed support for the delisting and downlisting proposal. "These special foxes were on the brink of extinction just 12 years ago when they were protected under the Endangered Species Act," Tierra Curry, CBD senior scientist, said. "Now, thanks to successful recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act, numbers of foxes are way up and threats have been reduced."

Comments are due by April 18. Public hearing requests must be submitted in writing by April 1.

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