Sometimes playing God works.
When the population of the Channel Islands fox fell to just 85 in 2004, wildlife officials knew they had a massive challenge on their hands. How to bring the adorable little animals back from the brink of extinction?
Unlike the loss of other species such as the black rhino or the jaguar, whose numbers have plummeted due to loss of habitat and human hunting, the island fox was the victim of another beloved species: the golden eagle.
For thousands of years, island foxes were abundant on California’s Channel Islands, where they lived largely safe from predators or other threats. But when people settled on the islands 150 years ago, they brought along sheep and pigs. The pigs rapidly reproduced, became feral and scattered across the islands, particularly Santa Cruz island, the largest in this largely undeveloped archipelago off the California coast. Mainland golden eagles had mostly avoided the islands because there was little food to be found there, that is until they discovered the bounty of pigs there.
They also discovered the island fox.
By 2000, the entire population of island foxes was nearly wiped out. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the Nature Conservancy, which owns 76% of Santa Cruz island, came up with an ambitious plan to rid the island of feral pigs and golden eagles.
The pigs were trapped and shot, often from helicopters. The eagles were caught and shipped to the Northern Californian mainland. So far, they have not returned.
Fifteen years later, the population of island foxes has rebounded beyond many people’s expectations, reaching more than 2000 foxes. That roughly equals the number that was first counted in the 1970s. You can watch the whole story in the video above.
“This is the fastest land mammal recovery ever accomplished in the United States,” said Christina Boser, an ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, and the leader of the fox recovery project.
In February 2016, it was recommended that the fox be taken off the endangered species list, something that has only happened 33 times in the 50-year existence of the Endangered Species Act in the US. Wildlife officials are expected to officially take the fox off the list this summer.
The success of the island fox’s recovery is being heralded as one the most significant in the Endangered Species Act’s half century of existence. But it’s unlikely that the techniques used to save the island fox are easily replicable. Each species in trouble faces its own unique threats, be they predators, habitat loss or some other pressure. For now, wildlife officials are ecstatic over their apparent success.
“This is a tremendous moment for the fox and for conservation as a whole,” said Ms. Boser.