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Release of foxes signals successful comeback

October 24, 2008 |  1:21 pm

Times staff writer Steve Chawkins reports that these are wonderful times to be an island fox.

An_island_fox_waits_to_be_set_free_ A decade ago, the house-cat-sized animals were scampering toward extinction, with only a few dozen surviving at spots scattered around Channel Islands National Park. Now they're practically poster mammals for species revival, numerous enough that government scientists no longer have to breed them in the safety of chain-link pens.

On Thursday, one, then another of the relentlessly cute critters dashed into the brush of this wind-swept island -- the last of the three where the breeding program operated. The transfer, solemnly performed by a park biologist and the second-in-command of the Interior Department, marked the end of a $5.4-million rescue effort that started in 1999.

"It may be one of the quickest recoveries in the history of the Endangered Species Act," said Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett. "It's a phenomenal success story."

And all it took was booting out dozens of fox-killing golden eagles, bringing back the bald eagles that were nearly wiped out decades before and killing some 5,000 feral pigs.

The island fox was listed as an endangered species in 1994. Officials said it may be taken off the list in about three years.

"To put that in perspective," Scarlett said, "we've had species on the endangered list since the act was passed" in 1973.

An avid hiker, Scarlett strode up a steep, mile-long trail as sweating park service personnel lagged behind. As they climbed, they wound through stands of rare, bonsai-like Torrey pines and gazed out on miles of pristine beaches, vast plains and deep gullies. On a Santa Rosa beach, a rib from a century-old shipwreck pokes through the sand. In a Santa Rosa canyon, archaeologists have found bones dating back 13,000 years -- the oldest human remains in North America.

On her most recent trip to Santa Rosa, Scarlett discovered the jawbone of an ancient pygmy mammoth. Now she bent over to inspect what appeared to be a fox's scat -- a sight once common but now worth a consultation with park staffers.

"The foxes used to just pop up everywhere," said park spokeswoman Yvonne Menard, whose husband, Mark Senning, is the ranger on Santa Rosa. "It's been sad not to see them."

For as long as 16,000 years, the fox had been doing fine. The largest native mammal on the Channel Islands -- and the smallest fox in North America -- it flourished on a diet of mice, crickets and berries. With no natural predators, the islands were a vulpine paradise.

But in a lethal chain reaction, the good times ended. When DDT from the mainland drifted seaward, the islands' fish-eating bald eagles vanished -- replaced by golden eagles, some of which even used the baldies' old nests.

In a short while, the fox population had dropped more calamitously than any financial index. The golden eagles, which were drawn by tasty piglets from a massive herd on nearby Santa Cruz Island, loved the little foxes, as well as fauns from a private Santa Rosa hunting preserve. And there were few places to hide: Cattle from a long-standing Santa Rosa ranch had trimmed tall grasses to stubble.

The cattle operation ended in 1998. Since then, the park service has trapped the golden eagles, sometimes using nets sprung from helicopters. Scientists have nurtured bald eagles in specially built towers. The pigs on Santa Cruz were shot, over the objections of an animal rights group. Under a court settlement, the deer and elk in the Santa Rosa hunting operation are to be removed by 2011.

At their lowest point, the foxes on Santa Rosa numbered only 15 -- down from more than 1,000 just a few years earlier. The survivors were lured into pens and reared on a diet of dead mice and dry dog food.

The captive breeding programs on Santa Cruz and San Miguel islands were closed last year. More than 540 foxes now live in the wild on those islands. About 140 are running free on Santa Rosa, with six more to be released in the next couple of weeks. An aged fox or two will remain penned.

Thursday's release went more smoothly than others arranged for visiting dignitaries.

Park Supt. Russell Galipeau said a young fox failed to come bounding out of a portable cage when sprung by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara).

"She just didn't want to leave," he said. "She plastered herself against the mesh. We had to take the cage apart."

On Thursday, there was only a momentary hesitation before both foxes leaped out.

"That's one of the great things about islands," said Kate Faulkner, the park's natural resources chief. "You can bring them back."

Photo: Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times

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