May 15 is Endangered Species Day. While a single day is fine excuse for highlighting the need to protect – and sometimes help bring back – the species that share our planet, it’s important to remember that successful protection – and recovery – is the result of painstaking effort undertaken 365 days a year. And there’s no finer example of endangered species recovery than the Channel Islands’ island fox.
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, including three of the five islands of Channel Islands National Park. The recovery of the island fox on those three islands – Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel – now unofficially (the fox has yet to be officially removed from the endangered list) ranks as one of the fastest recoveries of an endangered species. Ever.
Understanding the story of the island fox is important, not just for its happy ending but for its moral. Nature is a complex web and man’s hand can often fracture the strands in unexpected fashion. The simple version of the island fox story goes like this. Was a time when island foxes scampered across Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Cruz by the hundreds, but when bald eagles vanished from the Channel Islands (the bald eagles ingested DDT washed into 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 instinctively 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. At one point the island fox population on Santa Rosa dropped to fourteen.
Many, many hands plunged in to perform a near miracle; diligent, quiet, caring, anonymous hands you will never know. 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 and an effort to reestablish bald eagles on the islands. Both were successful.
Many believe it is only a matter of short time before the island fox is removed from the government’s endangered species list.
So tip your hat to Endangered Species Day!
Sometimes, regarding hope, there is a very narrow window. But the breeze of possibility always blows through it.
Want to learn more about the Island Fox? Click here.
For more about Endangered Species Day, click here.