Back at Scorpion Ranch on the afternoon of May 29, 2016, Sean and Patrick and I went in search of more little foxes like those we’d seen in the morning before we’d set off on our hike.
The Santa Cruz Island Fox is one of six subspecies endemic to the Channel Islands of southern California. Although they are descended from the Gray Fox on the mainland, over thousands of years of isolation on the islands, the foxes have grown much smaller. They measure only about two feet from nose to tail, about the size of a house cat, and they weigh only three to six pounds. The six subspecies also differ from each other in terms of tail length, muzzle shape, and coloration.
Foxes have been present on the northern Channel Islands for 10,000 – 16,000 years, their arrival roughly coinciding with that of humans at least 13,000 years ago (among the earliest human remains discovered in North America are those found on the Channel Islands). It is possible that the earliest Island Foxes descended from mainland foxes that rafted across the Santa Barbara Channel on debris. In more recent times (3,500 years ago), Native Americans introduced the Island Fox to the southern Channel Islands, presumably on trading voyages. There is also evidence of semi-domestication of the Island Fox by the Chumash people, who revered them.
Unlike their mainland cousins, who are nocturnal, Island Foxes are active during the day. They are the apex predators on their respective islands, so they have little to fear in being boldly visible within their home territories. They also have little fear of humans, and the foxes we saw paid us little heed as they went about their business of hunting mice and small insects or settling down for a nap.
We did see them near Scorpion Campground, looking for food carelessly dropped by campers. Most campsites were tidy, but ravens were trashing one campsite where food and items were left out.
At the time we visited last May, the Island Fox was listed on the Endangered Species List. Despite the impacts of ranching on island habitats, Island Fox populations were fairly stable until the second half of the twentieth century, when they experienced a precipitous decline. The die off was not the effect of hunting or development or anything seeming to impact the little foxes directly, though. Rather it was the elimination of Bald Eagles from the Channel Islands in the 1950s through DDT poisoning that led to the catastrophe. Fish-eating Bald Eagles ignored the little foxes, but their presence kept the Channel Islands free of other predatory raptors, including Golden Eagles. After the Bald Eagles vanished, Golden Eagles colonized the islands. These huge birds began to prey on the little foxes, who had never had to worry about such a fearsome predator before.
By 1999, the Santa Cruz Island Fox had declined to fifteen individuals, mirroring that of subspecies on the other islands. The National Park Service and its partners instituted a captive breeding program, and in 2002, the foxes were added to the Endangered Species List.
Crucially, Golden Eagles were removed from the islands, as were feral pigs. Bald Eagles were reintroduced, and the first Bald Eagle chicks in decades hatched on the Channel Islands in 2006.
By 2011, the number of individual Santa Cruz Island Foxes had rebounded to over 1,300, approaching the island’s assumed carrying capacity of around 1,500 individuals. Then in August 2016, three months after our visit, three of the four endangered subspecies, including the Santa Cruz Island Fox were removed from the Endangered Species List, and the fourth on the list was upgraded to threatened. It was one of the fastest recoveries and delistings ever for a species on the list.
As of now, the future looks bright for the charming little foxes.