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Tim Coonan, a terrestrial biologist for Channel Islands National Park, releases the last captive-bred fox into the wild on Santa Rosa Island. “Things are going so well in the wild, we can close down captive breeding completely this year,” Coonan says. (Chuck Graham photo)

Wide-eyed and bewildered, a tiny, house cat-sized island fox was reluctant to flee from its cage for the first time into the wilds of windswept Santa Rosa Island. The captive-bred predator remained just outside its cage for several minutes, sniffing the outside world it soon would claim as its own, bringing an end to 10 years of captive breeding across the Channel Islands National Park.

The captive-bred programs on neighboring Santa Cruz Island to the southeast and San Miguel Island to the west were shut down in 2007, their wild populations rebounding rapidly from near extinction. Their recovery appears to be one of the swiftest recoveries of an endangered species in the history of the Endangered Species Act.

“It’s a great time to think about island foxes,” said Tim Coonan, a terrestrial biologist for the Channel Islands National Park. “Things are going so well in the wild, we can close down captive breeding completely this year.”

This was because of two factors, the first of which was the ability of the species to do well in the wild when its primary mortality factor (predation by golden eagles) was removed. Second was the cooperative recovery effort, which began more than five years before the island fox was officially listed as endangered, ensuring that recovery techniques such as captive breeding and releasing and golden eagle removal were implemented quickly and professionally.

The return of bald eagles, absent from the archipelago for more than 50 years, and the eradication of about 5,000 feral pigs from Santa Cruz Island that officially ended in the spring of 2008 also weighed heavy in the recovery of the island fox and the return of a natural ecological balance to the chain. Since the removal of more than 40 golden eagles, the island fox survival rate has risen to 90 percent on all three islands.

“We hope to see the fox population grow within a few years to a level sufficient to consider their removal from the list of endangered species,” Deputy Secretary of Interior Lynn Scarlett said.

Why captive breeding was slow on Santa Rosa appears to be a mystery. Like San Miguel, the wild population had plummeted to critical in 1999-2000, each island down to just 15 animals. Whatever that mystery was, it seems to have worked itself out. So far, the National Park Service has discovered 32 pups born in the wild in 2008, up from 25 pups in 2007.

“They had one foot in the grave,” said Coonan, referring to island fox populations in 1999. “Today, they’re breeding on their own in the wild, and now we’re moving into a monitoring phase.”

San Miguel foxes rebounded quicker, going from a peak of 400 animals, down to 15 and back up to 130 foxes in the wild today. Santa Rosa is a larger island and had a density of 1,000 foxes before golden eagles arrived in the 1990s. After dropping to 15 animals, there are now 110 in the wild. Historically, Santa Cruz had about 1,500 island foxes. That number dropped to a low of 70. Today, there are 410 on the largest of the Channel Islands.

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An island fox basks in its freedom at the dawn of a new day on Santa Cruz Island. (Chuck Graham photo)

“We thought it was the captive facilities, their location or we didn’t pick pairs as well,” said Kate Faulkner, chief of natural resources for the park, “because we were choosing who would mate with who, and sometimes they didn’t get along.”

The numbers were so low on San Miguel and Santa Rosa that genetics became an issue to avoid inbreeding, and matching compatible pairs was a priority. Island foxes are monogamous and mate for life.

“We really didn’t know what the answer was,” Faulkner said. “We had vets, zoo people trying to help us improve the situation. In the end, it was clear the foxes were doing better in the wild.”

Faulkner said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was notified of plans to release the remaining foxes and close down captive breeding. For now, the species will remain listed as endangered, and the empty captive pens will remain for a few years as a failsafe on the three northern islands. 

The last remaining captive-bred fox, a 6-year-old male, was released on Santa Rosa near Carrington Point in early November, a region of the island where few island foxes roam. It’s typically tough on newcomers when established foxes have already marked their territories.

“When they’re first released, they have to work out those territories,” Faulkner said. “It’s easier releasing foxes on islands when densities are really low. It gives foxes a place to go. That was a problem on Santa Cruz, releasing into an environment that had a lot more foxes, so newly released foxes were getting beaten up by more established foxes.”

The newly released fox bounded westward, already covering more ground than it was allowed to inside its chain-linked pen. It briefly glanced our way before vanishing into a thicket of dormant lupine, sensing freedom for the first time.

Local freelance writer Chuck Graham is editor of Deep magazine.