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Catalina Island fox goes from endangered to abundant

Research suggests Paleo-Indians brought the foxes to the southern islands roughly 4,000 years ago.

By Brooks Hays
Catalina Island fox goes from endangered to abundant
The Island fox (Urocyon littoralis) forages for small rodents, lizards and fruit on the Channel Islands of California. Photo by National Park Service/Department of Interior

AVALON, Calif., March 9 (UPI) -- In 1999, the Catalina Island fox was nearly wiped out by a canine distemper epidemic. The disease arrived on the island via a stowaway racoon. Fast-forward more than 15 years, and biologists estimate that the population is approaching a threshold.

A $2-million recovery effort, including vaccination and captive breeding programming, helped turn things around. Now, officials are are preparing to have the fox taken off the endangered species list.

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As their population has grown, the fox is increasingly venturing into more heavily populated portions of the island. Last year, 21 fox specimens were killed by cars. Several others died of drowning and poisoning.

"With a million visitors here each year, there's never going to be a lack of threat to the foxes from human disease," Julie King, the island's wildlife manager, told the Daily Breeze. "The unhappy consequence of having a recovered population is that they're moving into areas around Avalon where people haven't seen foxes in their backyards for 15 years. They've become less diligent with trash practices."

Conservationists estimate that there are now more than 1,700 foxes on Catalina Island. The fox is one of six subspecies of the Island Gray fox (Urocyon littoralis) -- one for each of the six main Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California.

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It's believed the foxes first arrived to the northern islands by floating on logs and debris. Research suggests Paleo-Indians brought the foxes to the southern islands roughly 4,000 years ago.

The Island Gray fox weighs in at just four to six pounds, out-sizing its mainland relatives by 25 percent. As the largest mammal on the island, the omnivore has a plethora of dietary options, including mice, lizards, birds, wild fruits and insects.

Though it does have one predator, the golden eagle -- a bird several times the fox's size -- the fox is more or less top dog.

"The recovery of the island fox is one of the great success stories of ecological restoration," Dave Garcelon, head of the Institute for Wildlife Studies, told reporters. "But with no natural predators, this little fox is the king of beasts on Catalina -- and that can get it into trouble."

Though protecting the animals from disease will remain a top priority, conservationists may need to shift their focus from saving the fox to teaching humans how to live safely side by side with the wild animal.

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