Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
CARLSBAD FWO:Santa Catalina Island Fox Journey Toward Recovery
California-Nevada Offices , October 16, 2009
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Julie King weighs Catalina Island fox (photo: Carlos de la Rosa/CIC)
Julie King weighs Catalina Island fox (photo: Carlos de la Rosa/CIC) - Photo Credit: n/a
Calvin Duncan checks the Catalina Island Fox's tooth health (photo: Carlos de la Rosa/CIC)
Calvin Duncan checks the Catalina Island Fox's tooth health (photo: Carlos de la Rosa/CIC) - Photo Credit: n/a
Julie King drawing blood sample from Catalina Island fox (photo: USFWS)
Julie King drawing blood sample from Catalina Island fox (photo: USFWS) - Photo Credit: n/a

by Stephanie Weagley, Carlsbad FWO
The Santa Catalina Island Fox is a small, docile creature that can live 8 - 12 years in the wild and potentially breed for life. A socially monogamous species, it enjoys feeding on a wide variety of plants and animals, such as harvest mice, quail, insects, and the fruit of cactus, Catalina Cherry and Manzanita. Weighing on average three to six pounds, it is the largest native omnivore endemic only to Santa Catalina Island (Catalina Island), one of eight Channel Islands located approximately 20 miles off the coast of southern California. 

In 1999, fox population numbers plummeted to less than 100 individuals; five years earlier, the population estimates were at 1,300. The dramatic decline was attributed to a virulent outbreak of canine distemper, presumably introduced by domestic dogs, in the eastern end of Catalina Island. News of this decline prompted a series of remarkable partnership recovery efforts, some of which are still in practice today. 

Shortly after the canine distemper outbreak, a recovery effort began when the Catalina Island Conservancy (CIC), in partnership with the Institute for Wildlife Studies, initiated a captive breeding program. The captive breeding program included the release and translocation of juvenile fox back to the wild to augment the diminished population, development and implementation of a custom vaccine for canine distemper, and an intense population monitoring and management program. “The captive breeding and vaccination efforts were very successful at increasing the fox population,” said Sandy Marquez, Recovery Permit Coordinator for the Carlsbad Fish & Wildlife Service Office (CFWO). “By 2004, the wild fox population had increased to over 300 and the captive breeding program was terminated.” That same year, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the Santa Catalina Island Fox as federally endangered. 

Today, vaccinations and rigorous fox population and disease monitoring efforts continue to be administered by the CIC, with the help of funds provided through Private Stewardship Grants from the CFWO Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. “Island foxes vaccinated against canine distemper and rabies now occupy nearly every portion of Catalina Island,” said Samantha Marcum, Conservation Partnerships Program Biologist with CFWO. “The continuation of this management action will help stop or slow the spread of either disease, if they recur. I am constantly impressed by CIC’s tireless on-the-ground efforts to protect and recover the fox.”

In order to better comprehend what has taken and is currently taking place on the road toward recovery, a day in the field on Catalina Island provided a closer look. 

The day started at sunrise with three biologists from CIC scheduled to check their respective trap lines (53 traps) by noon.  “The trap was specifically designed for this fox,” said Julie King, Senior Wildlife Biologist with the Conservation Department of the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy. “The metal bars have been placed closer together so the snout and paws do not get caught—it keeps things in and keeps things out. It also contains an attached chew bar; this is to encourage the fox to chew on it instead of the metal bars in hopes of preventing potential tooth damage.”

In addition to the trap specifications, food was placed inside the traps to help lure the fox inside and grasses were scattered along the bottom to provide insulation. “These grasses were gathered from the immediate site in order to help prevent the inadvertent spread of invasive plants and seeds to other areas of the island”, said King. “For twelve weeks out of the year, trapping occurs at 603 trap locations throughout the island. Each trap line is comprised of 30 to 60 traps that are set for four consecutive nights.”

Getting to the trap site was just the start of a whirlwind of activity to follow. If a fox was captured, the biologist immediately initiated an on-the-spot medical examination consisting of a multitude of standard medical procedures: weight, sex, age, PIT tag – unless a PIT tag scanner indicated otherwise; check for wounds, cactus spines, bone breaks, tooth health, fleas and lice; clean ears, look for ear mites and ear tumors (pink or gray nodules); blood sample draw to test for rabies and canine distemper; and vaccinations or topical treatments dispensed as determined. And during each exam, an intense, yet gentle interaction existed between both human and fox with careful attention given to every detail. The level of commitment to the task at hand was unmistakable.

“On Catalina Island, 95 percent of foxes have ear mites, the most of any other Channel Islands where foxes are found,” said King. “When we check the ears with an Otoscope and find ear mites, we treat with a topical treatment that lasts eight months. Heavy ear mite loads and wax build up can cause serious ear infections as the ear canal closes.”

“The CIC program, in collaboration with the University of California, Davis and the Institute for Wildlife Studies, is currently conducting research to investigate the causes and potential treatment of ear tumors (ceruminous gland carcinoma) affecting the Catalina Island fox population,” said Marquez. “Ear mites have been identified as a contributing factor to the development of ear tumors. Subsets of foxes were treated for ear mites in 2008 and 2009 and will be monitored for results.”

After the fox exams were completed, the empty traps were stacked neatly in the truck bed and taken to Middle Ranch Headquarters where they were scrubbed down with an antivirus and antibacterial product to help prevent the spread of diseases when reused.

Today, the fox population is estimated to be 784 individuals, largely due to the ongoing and steadfast conservation partnership efforts aimed to help the FWS recover this endangered species.

Every one of these recovery efforts has played a vital role in helping the Santa Catalina Island fox move toward recovery. “When you see the CIC staff at work in the field, it is apparent how much they genuinely care for the foxes,” said Marcum.

Although continued fox trapping, population monitoring, vaccinations, and management programs have taken place, the fox remains in danger of extinction due to the threat of canine distemper, ear mites and tumors, invasive plant species and loss of native habitat. Other threats include vehicle collisions, feral cats, and unleashed dogs.

Eighty-eight percent of Catalina Island (42,000 acres) is owned by the CIC, a nonprofit organization responsible for preserving and protecting the Island’s native plants, animals and biological communities. It also assists in educating the Island inhabitants and visitors about the issues threatening the continued survival of the fox. CIC is the steward of Catalina Island lands and strives to maintain a balance of conservation, education and recreational needs.

Catalina Island is host to a diverse palette of habitat consisting of sweeping valley grasslands, two-thousand foot peaks dotted by coastal oak and sage scrub, sandy coves, and rugged coastlines. Additionally, it is host to approximately 1 million tourists every year and has the largest human population and highest degree of human activity and accessibility of all the Channel Islands. The city of Avalon, which encompasses approximately 2.5 square miles of the 76-square mile Island, is located on the Island’s east end and is the main population center with 3,600 year-round residents. 



Contact Info: Stephanie Weagley, 805-644-1766, stephanie_weagley@fws.gov
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