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Endangered wild foxes of Santa Catalina Island are rebounding

March 2, 2010 |  2:44 pm

A decade after a canine distemper outbreak killed nearly its entire population, the endangered Catalina Island fox is making a comeback. About 1,200 of the 1,300 foxes on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California, died as a result of the outbreak. Now, thanks to a program to save the species and several years' worth of fortuitous weather patterns, their numbers have rebounded. Our colleague Louis Sahagun has the details in a story Tuesday; here's an excerpt:

Fox Standing beside a sign posted along a main road urging people to watch for foxes, Carlos de la Rosa, the Catalina Island Conservancy's chief conservation and education officer, said, "Soon we'll have more than 1,300 foxes. But reaching that number is not, in and of itself, as great an achievement as bringing them back from the brink of extinction to a population that is stable and able to sustain itself."

The population had crashed to about 100 in 1999, when the conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies launched a $2-million recovery program that includes vaccinations, aerial monitoring and education programs.

A captive breeding program here ended in 2004, the same year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the cat-sized subspecies as endangered. About 950 Catalina Island foxes call the island home, up from 784 at this time last year, according to a recent islandwide trapping effort by conservancy wildlife biologists Julie King and Calvin Duncan.

The foxes are trapped once a year and inspected for illnesses, including an unusual, potentially fatal ear cancer that recently began showing up in older foxes.

The animal's remarkable recovery was spurred, in part, by several years of fluctuations in the weather. An extreme drought in 2007 resulted in the deaths of significant numbers of mule deer, whose carcasses were scavenged by the omnivorous 5-pound foxes. By the time breeding season arrived in 2008, many foxes were literally obese, and females were in such good condition that they were having larger-than-normal litters.

Good rains the past two years triggered an abundance of fruit-bearing cactuses and a population explosion of mice, convenient prey for female foxes to feed to their pups.


Photo: Catalina Island Conservancy

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