WASHINGTON (CN) – Three subspecies of Channel Island fox have been removed from the federal list of endangered species, and a fourth subspecies has been downlisted from endangered to threatened. The 12-year journey of the foxes from near extinction to recovery represents the fastest accomplishment in the history of the Endangered Species Act, according to the Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The Island Fox recovery is an incredible success story about the power of partnerships and the ability of collaborative conservation to correct course for a species on the brink of extinction,” U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said. “What happened in record time at Channel Islands National Park can serve as a model for partnership-driven conservation efforts across the country.”
The four subspecies were listed as endangered in 2004 after populations plunged to 15 individuals each for Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island foxes, 55 individuals on Santa Cruz Island and 103 on Santa Catalina Island, four of the six Channel Islands off the coast of southern California inhabited by the foxes. These declines represented up to a 95 percent reduction in population from historic levels.
The swift and dramatic decimation of the fox populations was the result of predation by golden eagles, which moved into the islands after the native bald eagles had been wiped out due to severe egg-shell thinning and nest failure caused by the use of the pesticide DDT. In 2006, after recovery efforts, a bald eagle pair hatched the first bald eagle chick on the Channel Islands in over 50 years, according the agency.
Bald eagles are primarily fish-eaters, but golden eagles, which were attracted to the islands by the abundance of introduced pigs and their young, quickly found that the foxes made excellent prey because they were not wary of eagle attacks.
Island foxes are very small, standing about 5 inches at the shoulder and weighing just over 4 pounds, “making them the smallest fox species in the United States,” Ashley Spratt, with the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, told Courthouse News in February, when the delisting/downlisting proposal was announced.
The recovery effort was accomplished by a collaboration of non-profits and state and federal agencies working together to relocate the golden eagles to the mainland, reestablish the bald eagles, remove the nonnative pigs, and reintroduce captive-bred foxes to the islands. USFWS Director Dan Ashe said, “That’s the power of the ESA, not just to protect rare animals and plants on paper, but to drive focused conservation that gets dramatic results. More than 300 experts, non-profit organizations, state and federal agencies came together to not only prevent the extinction of Channel Island foxes, but to fully restore them in record time. That’s something to celebrate!”
The Santa Catalina foxes are still protected under the ESA as a threatened rather than an endangered species, because that island has a permanent human population, and the foxes there still face threats from canine distemper carried by pet dogs. A vaccination program for the dogs and foxes is on-going.
In the 43-year history of the ESA, 37 species have been delisted due to recovery and the act has prevented more than 99 percent of the species listed from going extinct, according to the Department of Interior.
The final delisting/downlisting rule is effective Sept. 12.
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