What It Took to Save America’s Most Adorable Foxes

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Officials had to chase golden eagles in helicopters and kill 4,800 feral pigs.

By Francie Diep

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(Photo: Department of the Interior)

Three subspecies of Channel Island foxes—housecat-sized canines that live only on six islands off the coast of California — have been removed from the United States’ endangered species list. Species are rarely “de-listed,” as Pacific Standardfound recently, and this one’s story is especially dramatic. The foxes made a comeback after their numbers plummeted 90 percent or more, and they are the fastest-recovering mammal in the history of the Endangered Species Act, according to the Department of the Interior.

The Interior’s announcement is a milestone in an extraordinary chapter in America’s efforts to save endangered animals. It shows how much of a difference a comprehensive program can make, although the foxes’ success hasn’t always been replicated elsewhere. Here’s what it took to save the island foxes:

  • Time: The foxes’ recovery was swift, but not as fast as it might seem at first blush. Conservation efforts began soon after the foxes’ populations crashed in the 1990s due to an outbreak of canine distemper thought to have been accidentally imported from the mainland and predation by golden eagles. That was years before their inclusion in the endangered species list.
  • Money: Officials don’t have an estimate for the overall cost of the recovery program, but the monitoring and breeding portions cost $20 million, the Los Angeles Times reports. Other costs included removing non-native golden eagles and pigs from the Channel Islands, and re-establishing native bald eagles.
  • Effort: To protect the foxes from predation, conservationists captured and relocated golden eagles, an effort that took six years and some creative thinking. Over time, the eagles became “increasingly savvy,” Melinda Burns reported for Pacific Standard. “The last elusive birds had to be followed around by helicopters until they got tired and flopped on the ground, where they could be covered with nets.”
  • Animal Lives: Officials killed 4,800 feral pigs, which had been introduced to the islands by European ranchers.

The conservation effort isn’t over. Biologists plan to continue to monitor the island foxes, the Los Angeles Times reports. Of particular concern is that they’ll endure another deadly disease outbreak, especially on Catalina Island, a popular tourist destination.

A recent study found that Channel Island foxes are the least genetically diverse wild animals known to science, a natural consequence of their living on small, rocky islands, which limits their mating pool. They’re 99.9 percent alike, which means they’re probably all susceptible to the same infections, so when one falls ill, it may sicken many others on the same island. There’s a vaccination program underway on Catalina Island, NPR reports.

It looks like the island foxes will need some more money, time, and effort yet to keep them safe for generations to come.

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