Island Fox Chronicles

I will never forget my first encounter with an island fox. I was on Santa Cruz Island, the largest isle off the California coast and part of the Channel Islands National Park.

I was hiking the 7.4-mile, out-and-back Smugglers Cove Trail. There was not a lot of shade on the more arid southeast end of the islet, except at Smugglers Cove. No one was there as I sat under an old olive tree left over from the ranching era. Walking straight toward me was a sleepy looking island fox, crossing over a seasonal arroyo as the surf thundered in the background. One of the fox’s ears was drooping above its left eye. It stopped and rested momentarily in the shadows as if it had not a care in its island world.

Averaging around 4 pounds, island foxes are the largest land predators across the string of isles of the 40th National Park, also known as “the Galapagos Islands of the north” for their teeming biodiversity. When I first encountered island foxes in 1996, their populations on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands had no known predators. Whether they knew it or not, however, they were nearing the brink of extinction, their numbers spiraling to critical lows. By the late 1990s, hope was running thin for their survival. 

Teetering on the Brink

In September 1997, I had just kayaked west from Santa Cruz Island to San Miguel Island. A 50-mile stretch, paddling conditions need to cooperate, and they did as I landed at Cuyler Harbor without a hitch. Little did I know biologists were attaining information and possible clues to the decline of the island fox on this idyllic isle.

I grabbed my supplies, stowed the kayak and hiked from the pearly white sands of Cuyler 1.5 miles southwest to the campground. Along the way, I ran into National Park personnel standing around a trap with an island fox inside. Tim Coonan, the lead terrestrial biologist at the time, was busy handling the submissive animal and applying a radio collar to track its whereabouts on the windswept isle. Happenstance being what it was, I asked permission to take pictures, and from that moment on began documenting the decline and recovery of these iconic island canids.

Coonan let the fox go, and it bounded off through blooming buckwheat and dormant coreopsis. Unfortunately, this island fox didn’t survive, but when its remains were discovered, so was a clue. Next to its carcass was the feather of a golden eagle, a predatory raptor not native to the archipelago. This find sent a chain reaction through park headquarters.

Island Impacts

The Channel Islands, including Anacapa, Santa Barbara and San Miguel, the three smallest islets in the chain, became a National Park in 1980. Santa Rosa Island, a working cattle ranch up until 1987, was added shortly thereafter. In 1997, the NPS purchased from the Nature Conservancy (TNC) the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island, 24 percent of the island. The most biodiverse island in the chain, Santa Cruz Island had been a working sheep ranch before it became part of the TNC. There were about 50,000 sheep and about 5,000 feral pigs running amok across the mountainous islet. 

The Santa Barbara Channel lies between the islands and the mainland. With a 1-mile boundary around each island, essentially half the park is underwater. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary has another 5-mile boundary surrounding the park beyond the NPS boundary, so a lot of protections are in place to safeguard unique resources. The islands are close to the mainland—the closest distance being 11 miles from Oxnard. From there the islands stagger westward, the farthest distance being 40 miles.

All the islands experienced ranching of some sort from the 1830s to 1987, and those practices badly denuded island flora, affecting habitat for native fauna like the island fox, island skunk, several reptile species and the endemic deer mouse. Seabird habitat was also in jeopardy.

The worst of the human imprint stemmed from DDT pesticides. The Montrose Chemical Corporation made DDT from the 1940s up until 1970, when it became outlawed. During that time, Montrose dumped 18 metric tons of DDT into the ocean in the Southern California Bight, which stretches between Point Conception in central California down to the Mexican border. Most of the dumping was along the Los Angeles County coastline.

Montrose eventually was caught and after 25 years of litigation had to pay $140 million in restitution, $40 million of which went towards restoring natural resources and returning the islands back to a natural balance.

The DDT had a horrific outcome for the entire food web surrounding the National Park. Seabirds such as California brown pelicans, and raptors such as peregrine falcons and bald eagles, laid thin-shelled eggs. During the incubation process, the eggs were crushed by the parents, and generations of these species were lost.

Eventually bald eagles became extinct on the islands for 50 years. This opened the door for golden eagles to colonize the islands, lured over from the mainland by the feral pig population on Santa Cruz Island. Bald eagles eat fish and scavenge marine mammal carcasses. They do not hunt island foxes. Once golden eagles arrived, they found the island foxes an easy catch because the foxes, being the top predator on the islands, never knew to look for an aerial predator. 

Historically, on Santa Cruz Island, island fox populations hovered at around 1,500 animals. By 2002 it was at a critical low of 50 animals. Populations were even lower on Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands at 15 foxes each!

A four-pronged effort ensued involving the NPS, TNC and the Institute for Wildlife Studies, agencies collaborating to restore the natural balance. Island foxes went on the US Endangered Species List in 2002. In addition, they were captive bred on each island to maintain their unique genetic differences. If one island population were wiped out, it would be gone forever.

Bald eagles were reintroduced to the islands from 2002 to 2006. Each of those years a dozen 8-week-old eaglets were placed in a hack tower, a wooden nesting box on a raised platform, on Santa Cruz Island. Four weeks later, the hack towers were opened when the eaglets were old enough to fly. Simultaneously the NPS trapped 43 golden eagles that had colonized the islands and returned them to the mainland in northeastern California. Bald eagles are a little more aggressive and have kept the golden eagles at bay ever since. Today there are approximately 70 bald eagles that have reclaimed old territories with successful nests.

The eradication of the feral pig population began in the fall of 2006 and finished in the spring of 2008. Pro Hunt, a company out of New Zealand that specializes in eradicating nonnatives from islands, was hired. It was a $5 million effort to rid Santa Cruz Island of its worst pest.

It was a whirlwind of environmental events, agencies coming together to right many wrongs, culminating in the healthy return of island fox populations across the entire archipelago. They came off the Endangered Species List in 2016, the swiftest recovery of a land mammal species in the history of the Endangered Species Act. Historically, it was always believed that carrying capacity for island foxes was 1,500 animals on Santa Cruz Island. Today there are roughly 2,500 island foxes on Santa Cruz. The same holds true for Santa Rosa where 1,500 island foxes thrive on the windswept isle. San Miguel Island has around 500 island foxes. Things are looking up for the smallest canid in North America.

Living with Island Foxes

My trail running shoes had gone missing again, tossed into the seasonal creek bed, but this time the little rascals had gone too far. They had chewed through all the shoelaces. Nevertheless, I laced up the best I could and bounded up Scorpion Canyon, the prominent gorge on the southeast end of Santa Cruz. As I ran the narrow path, I felt as if I was being followed. Sure enough, a young, precocious island fox was hot on my heels until I headed up the steeper portion of the canyon.

There was a time in the late 1990s until the mid-2000s when it was uncommon to see island foxes as they were critically endangered. Today it is just the opposite. They are everywhere, even in the trees. They are adept tree climbers.

One early morning I woke up to one of the 4-pound cinnamon-colored canids scaling the wall of my tent between the rainfly and the outside wall. I lied there, my hands behind my head, watching this little fox walk up effortlessly until it was on the ceiling staring back down at me through the mesh. They have become so crafty. Island foxes are now skilled at unzipping tents in the campgrounds. Instead of bear boxes on the islands, we have fox boxes.

I’ve been leading kayak trips at the Channel Islands National Park for 18 years. Before and after work, my time is spent, hiking, running, surfing and taking photos, the island foxes being a favorite subject. A year ago, was quite fruitful as I was able to photograph two separate dens. The parents are very attentive trading off on parenting duties. They mate for life. The pups are beyond cute.

During the spring of 2017, I was on a 10-mile trail run and was crossing the flood plain of Scorpion Canyon. I nearly tripped over what looked to be a month-old island fox pup near the Scorpion Ranch House. The next morning on the same route there were two pups covered in dewdrops in the same location from the morning before, this time sunning themselves. Island fox parents typically hide their pups away for a couple of months, so it was amazing watching these two grow up over the next couple of months.

At one point nearly extinct, island fox populations on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands are now robust. It was incredible when the NPS, TNC and the Institute for Wildlife Studies came together on the islands to obtain a common goal. The nonnative stressors were removed and much of the islands healed on their own, island flora recovering quickly. The island fox needed a helping hand on a chain of islands close to the mainland, yet worlds apart in biodiversity. The diminutive island fox is now a symbol of conservation.

Photo: David Anderson