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Catalina Island Foxes No Longer Endangered, But Face New Threats

Mar 09, 2015 03:05 PM EDT
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Catalina Island foxes were nearly wiped out by a canine distemper epidemic in 1999, but now they have bounced back, so much so that officials are now considering taking them off the endangered species list.

However, these foxes are not in the clear quite yet, as their rebounding numbers are causing them to face new threats.

There are now more than 1,700 foxes on Catalina Island, according to conservationists, thanks to a $2-million recovery effort including vaccination and captive breeding programs.

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

Then, in 1999 the Catalina Island fox population dropped from more than 1,300 to just 100 animals. In 2013 authorities counted 362 foxes, which included 68 pups. In 2014, authorities counted 342 animals, which included just 19 pups.

"It may be that the fox population is regulating itself in the face of higher population densities and reduced abundance of prey such as mice due to the ongoing drought," Julie King, director of conservation and wildlife management at the Catalina Island Conservancy, told the Los Angeles Times.

However, while this is good news, their growing population is leading to dangerous run-ins with humans on the 76 square mile island, which hosts more than 1 million tourists each year.

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

The seemingly fearless animals are not only getting hit by cars, but also keep getting trapped inside trash bins and uncovered water containers.

The Catalina Island Conservancy has installed "fox crossing" signals on the island to try to prevent any future motor accidents involving the animals. The authority has also raised funds and provided trash cans that are animal proof to avoid foxes feeding upon human trash.

While it's good news that soon the Catalina Island fox may soon no longer be endangered, conservation efforts will have to continue to help them and humans learn to live side-by-side and ensure that this species is never on the brink of extinction again.

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