Hope in a 4 Pound Package: What Island Fox Recovery Can Teach Us About Our Future

Not very long ago, at least by evolution's clock, I stood on a Santa Rosa Island hilltop with my friend and Channel Islands National Park ranger Mark Senning.

Mark nodded down toward a tucked away valley where a collection of low lying buildings hunkered into the landscape like something from M*A*S*H.

"That's the fox recovery program main site," said Mark. "The principal captive breeding goes on there. We started with about 14 foxes six years ago and now we're approaching one hundred. We've sent a lot of them back into the wild. There's more in the wild now than in captivity."

The wind blew, as it is wont to do in empty open places

Mark looked out over the tawny hills rolling away into the distance.

"There used to be hundreds of these foxes out here, and then we were down to fourteen."

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He sounded mildly surprised, like an English professor, reading aloud before a class, suddenly come across a forgotten passage he himself had written.

"We nearly wiped them out," he said softly.

On that visit, I spent a week hiking about Santa Rosa. While enjoying the island's other natural glories, I made it my mission to spot an island fox. A descendant of the mainland gray fox, the island fox -- standing roughly a foot tall and weighing four to five pounds -- is found nowhere else in the world but on the Channel Islands off our Southern California coast. And so, on Santa Rosa -- in lovely canyons, on vast Serengeti-like plains, in groves of tiny twisted oaks, on snow-soft beaches -- I looked for them. I saw no foxes.

Granted, with 84 square miles of God's own terrain Santa Rosa Island offers plenty of places for an animal slightly bigger than a housecat to hide away. Still, as the end of my week neared I was depressed and disheartened. Man has erased so many species from the face of the earth. We are the reason extinction rates for some plants and animals are 1,000 times the norm.

Sylvia Earle, oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, recently wrote, "Only in times of great natural catastrophes, such as when comets or meteors collided with our planet, has the way forward been so swiftly and dramatically altered. Never before have such powerful changes been caused by the actions of a single species."

That would be us.

On the Channel Islands, the dire predicament of the island fox was also a result of man's hands. The simplified unfolding goes like this. Was a time when, as Mark had pointed out, island foxes scampered across Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Cruz islands by the hundreds. But when bald eagles vanished from the Channel Islands (the bald eagles ingested DDT dumped in the ocean, the chemicals causing the eagles to lay thin-shelled eggs that dehydrated or broke in the nest before they could hatch), a strange thing happened. Suddenly the foxes were dying faster than campaign promises in February. The reason was quickly apparent, though not to the island fox, a creature not instinctually hard-wired to protect itself from aerial attacks. With the dominant bald eagles gone, golden eagles assumed dominion of the islands' skies. Bald eagles normally eat fish, but the golden eagles were only too happy to gorge themselves on the hapless island foxes, who wandered about in the open like fuzzy take out dinners.

On Santa Rosa the math went something like this: in 1999, there were roughly 14 foxes on Santa Rosa. Down from 1,500.

And so one evening, after another long, fox-less day, I hiked back to camp weighted down by thoughts of this ruthless attrition. Dense fog and a cold wind added to my bleak mood. I scuffed along, staring gloomily at my sore feet. And when I looked up a little fox stood smack dab in the middle of the trail, looking directly at me with a wazz-zat? cock of its head. The diminutive figure swayed back and forth as if trying to hypnotize me, a feat it had already accomplished. And then it turned its backside to me and trotted jauntily into the mist, and my world was restored.

I prefer bright news to the alternative, and here it is. Since that stay on Santa Rosa Island six years ago the island fox has made an astonishing recovery on the Channel Islands, one of the fastest recoveries of an endangered species ever. Over the past few weeks, local and national media outlets (including KCET) have rightly trumpeted the news. Rare island fox rebounds on California islands. Foxes Back from the Brink of Extinction. Near-extinct Species Makes Remarkable Comeback.

This is a good -- and important -- thing for all of us to see.

Many, many hands plunged in to see to this near miracle; diligent, quiet, caring, anonymous hands you will never know. Hunters killed some 5,000 wild pigs on Santa Cruz Island (the golden eagles were initially drawn to Santa Cruz by the tasty piglets; descendants of the pigs of ranchers). One by one, biologists captured the golden eagles, relocating them to the eastern Sierra Nevada. With equal care biologists oversaw a captive island fox breeding program so successful it was swiftly discontinued. A program to reestablish bald eagles, which included the release of 60 eaglets from 2002 to 2006, now sees over 40 resident bald eagles on the northern Channel Islands. This includes at least six known nests. The young are always harbingers of hope.

Less than ten years after four of the six island fox subspecies were listed as federally endangered, they are on the verge of being removed from the list. The foxes, of course, care little for lists, but they are no doubt happy in their fashion regarding the following. At this moment there are roughly 1,300 foxes on Santa Cruz Island and 500 on San Miguel Island. On Santa Rosa 600 members of Urocyon littoralis santarosae pad over hill and dale. It is a pleasant thought imagining them all jauntily turning their backsides to me.

Even the biologists are stunned.

"I don't think anyone could imagine that 12 years after the decline was discovered .... we'd be looking at recovered populations," said Tim Coonan, a biologist with the National Park Service.

"This recovery is a terrific example of what can happen when people roll up their sleeves to restore an ecosystem," said Dr. Scott Morrison, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, an organization also involved in the recovery process.

Which brings us back to Sylvia Earle and the world beyond the Channel Islands, a world teetering on so very many precipitous brinks. Few people have personally witnessed more ecological declines and batterings than Earle, who has dedicated her working life to restoring our planet. Yet she remains optimistic, although she is blunt about what we must do.

"Fifty years into the future, it will be too late to do what is possible right now," she writes. "We are in a 'sweet spot' in time. Never again will there be a better time to take actions that can ensure an enduring place for ourselves within the living ecosystems that sustain us. We are at an unprecedented, pivotal point in history, in which the decisions we make in the next 10 years will determine the direction of the next 10,000."

In short, there is hope. It's a narrow window, but the breeze of possibility blows through it.

I like to think our island fox has shown us the way. Hope in a small, four pound package.

Never before have such powerful changes been caused by the actions of a single species.

This can be a bad or a good thing.

Never visited Channel Islands National Park? Use KCET's guide.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine is the author of eight books and lives in Ventura. His most recent novel, “Juncture,” is a cerebral “Jaws”; a suspense-filled thriller, a story of primal love and our changing oceans and, perhaps, a final fork in the road.
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