Tim Coonan, retired wildlife biologist from the National Park Service, recounts the sobering moment he realized island foxes on San Miguel Island were on the verge of extinction:
“I remember a few of us sitting in the bunk house at San Miguel Island in 1998. The latest survey showed less than 30 foxes on that island. We knew that if we wanted to save them, we were going to have to bring the remaining foxes in to captivity,” he said.
This spring, Coonan was among eight individuals recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as Recovery Champions for their remarkable teamwork spanning more than a decade to save island foxes on the northern Channel Islands from a seemingly inevitable fate.
In the late 1990s, island foxes on the northern Channel Islands of Santa Rosa, Santa Miguel, and Santa Cruz Islands were plummeting. Non-native golden eagles took up residence on the northern islands after native bald eagles were wiped from their home territory during the era of DDT. These avian predators thrived on the small foxes, an easy and unsuspecting prey-base. By the turn of the century, fox populations on these islands had dropped by 90 percent, from more than 3,600 foxes in 1994 to fewer than 100 in 2000.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the subspecies as federally endangered under the Endangered Species Act. With extinction an imminent threat, scientists, biologists, and natural resource managers across agencies and organizations rallied around a common mission to bring the island fox back from the brink on the northern Channel Islands.
Christie Boser, biologist with The Nature Conservancy, has been working toward that mission with Coonan and others for more than ten years.
“When I started working on Santa Cruz, the island was a different place,” she said. Remnants of the ranching era could still be seen on the islands into the 1980s. European settlers had introduced sheep, cattle and non-native pigs to the island, shifting the island ecosystem out of balance. By the 1950s bald eagles disappeared from the northern Channel Islands due to the impacts of hunting, egg collection and DDT. By the 1990s, in the absence of bald eagles, golden eagles established nests on the northern Channel Islands, attracted to and sustained by an unnatural year-round food source – feral piglets - and began to prey on the island foxes.
“There were hardly any foxes and there was a lot of concern around the fate of the species,” Boser said. “We had one orphaned pup whose parents were likely killed by golden eagles. She was in bad shape and required extensive medical care.” It was around that time that Boser, along with researchers and fox experts from the Institute for Wildlife Studies and the National Park Service, initiated a captive breeding program– an effort never before undertaken with this species. The program began in 1999 and captive bred foxes were released to the wild from 2003 until 2008.
“For a few months after we released those foxes, we’d track them every day. Seeing them thriving, their survival instinct kicking in immediately even though they’d never foraged for food on their own, that was special,” Boser said. “That orphan pup that we cared for, she was eventually released to the wild with the other captive foxes.”
As the captive breeding program progressed, land managers worked to address the threats impacting foxes in the wild. Golden eagles were captured and relocated to northern California, with the last pair removed in 2006.
David Garcelon, president of the Institute for Wildlife Studies, was a key player in informing and guiding management actions, like the golden eagle relocation project. “While not an easy task in the first place, it became increasingly difficult to capture the last of the golden eagles. The remaining golden eagles had seen all of the trapping tricks so it required developing and testing new capture approaches they had not seen.”
To reduce the likelihood of golden eagles returning to the island, the land managers worked to remove the non-native species that provided prey for the golden eagles, including feral pigs.
“Those recovery actions, golden eagle relocation and island fox captive breeding and reintroduction, were effective, surprisingly so. We were able to halt captive breeding after 10 years because island foxes survived and reproduced so well once we released them,” Coonan explained.
With golden eagles gone from the islands, bald eagles made an extraordinary comeback. In 2006, a bald eagle pair hatched the first bald eagle chick on the Channel Islands in over 50 years.
“The larger, ecosystem-wide recovery actions of feral pig removal and bald eagle restoration have restored equilibrium to the islands,” he said. “We’ve tipped the balance away from nonnative species and toward the persistence of the native island fox.”
After little more than a decade, with island fox populations flourishing, those who worked on island fox recovery - some dedicating their entire careers to the effort - can breathe a sigh of relief. Their vision was realized. Island fox numbers have bounced back to historic levels – around 700 on San Miguel Island, 1,200 on Santa Rosa Islands, and more than 2,100 on Santa Cruz Island.
“Each of these team members, and the organizations they represent, set a vision to bring these island fox subspecies back from the brink,” said Steve Henry, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura, during a ceremony on May 20 honoring representatives from The Nature Conservancy, National Park Service, and the Institute for Wildlife Studies. “Because of their tireless dedication to finding a way to save these subspecies, island foxes on San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz Islands have recovered to self-sustaining levels.”
As a result, Henry explained that the Service has proposed to delist these three subspecies, marking the fastest recovery of any mammal under Endangered Species Act protections.
He added, “The success of this team’s efforts is a testament to what we can accomplish for endangered wildlife by working together.”
The National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy will continue to monitor island fox populations on the northern Channel Islands. The Island Fox Recovery Plan, published in 2015, also serves as a blueprint for conservation partners and land managers to prevent or address threats to island fox subspecies, including an eagle management plan and disease epidemic response plan, and outlines proven methods to ensure the subspecies’ long-term viability in the wild.
After studying the biology and ecology of island foxes for more than thirty years, Garcelon said he never tired of learning about the species and working to prevent their extinction. “Island foxes are very resilient. All we had to do was remove the pressures causing their demise and they were able to recover well on their own.”
He added, “Working with a great team of people on the island fox recovery made the work all the move satisfying.”
Among the Recovery Champion award winners honored for their island fox recovery work include David Garcelon of the Institute for Wildlife Studies, Lotus Vermeer, Christina Boser, Eamon O’Byrne, and Scott Morrison of The Nature Conservancy, and Tim Coonan, Kate Faulkner, and Russell Galipeau of Channel Islands National Park.
David Garcelon is President of the Institute for Wildlife Studies, a non-profit organization dedicated to maintaining biodiversity and enhancing our understanding of the animals with which we share our world.
For several decades, David has been involved with island fox and ecosystem health on six Channel Islands. With David’s resolute leadership, his contributions to island fox biology and restoration efforts on the Channel Islands spans from island fox monitoring, involvement with removal efforts of nonnative species, and the reintroduction of bald eagles. Additionally, with his team of biologists and veterinarians from the Institute for Wildlife Studies, they not only guided captive breeding efforts for island foxes – an effort never before undertaken - but also monitored remaining wild fox populations throughout the captive breeding effort and remains involved today.
Dr. Scott Morrison is the Director of Science for the California Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and over his 15 year career with TNC has led the science of various Channel Island conservation programs.
Scott spearheaded the scientific collaborations that developed robust monitoring protocols for the island fox, led and participated in various technical expertise groups and analyses under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Coordination Group, and developed the scientific underpinnings of the strategy to eradicate feral pigs on Santa Cruz Island.
Dr. Lotus Vermeer came to The Nature Conservancy in 2003 as director of its Santa Cruz Island Preserve and Channel Islands Program, where she helped set a new standard for the management of complex, multi-partner conservation programs.
Dr. Lotus Vermeer led the successful island restoration and endangered species recovery efforts for the Conservancy’s Santa Cruz Island and Channel Islands Program from 2003 to 2012.
Christina Boser is a California Islands Ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, and has worked on the Islands since 2006 as a fox technician, fox program lead, biosecurity manager, and invasive ant researcher. She is currently devoted to structuring institutional guidelines which acknowledge the conservation-reliant status of many islands species and outline steps to appropriately manage these species.
Christina Boser released many of the Santa Cruz Island foxes back to the wild in 2006 and has tracked those foxes as they live out their lives on an eagle-free island.
Eamon O’Byrne leads the Chapter’s conservation partnership work on California’s offshore islands, and oversees TNC’s ecological restoration and recovery programs on its Santa Cruz Island Preserve. O’Byrne joined TNC as Associate Director of Operations 2008, and took up his current role in August of 2013.
Having achieved the major objectives of the island’s recovery project, Lotus Vermeer handed over the reins to Eamon in 2013. The California Islands program will continue its monitoring and vaccination program on Santa Cruz Island, to reduce the risk of ever seeing the fox population pushed to the brink again.
For more than two decades, Tim Coonan represented the Park Service on all facets of island fox recovery. Even before the foxes were listed as endangered, Tim engaged members of the scientific community across agencies and organizations to put into motion recovery planning efforts.
Tim oversaw captive breeding efforts and eagle management activities, and played an instrumental role in the development of the Island Fox Recovery Plan. Tim’s long history with island fox recovery spanned from the time of their decline in the late 1990’s to early 2000s, to just this past year as we celebrated the release of the final recovery plan and proposed delisting. Tim is recently retired from the National Park, and we thank him for his career-long dedication to island fox recovery. Even in his retirement, Tim continues to lead the multi-agency Island Fox Conservation Working Group.
Kate Faulkner joined the Channel Islands National Park in 1990 to become chief of the park’s Natural Resources program. She faced many challenges in dealing with the legacy of grazing, DDT, and other degradations on the islands, however, her remarkable ability to work with research scientists, superintendents, and others, in often contentious policy arenas, resulted in some of the most outstanding examples of resource management successes in the National Park Service.
Under Kate’s natural resource leadership, the park took aggressive efforts to recover natural systems at Channel Islands based on good science and well-planned partnerships, which were key to their success. By working closely with other park programs, including inventory and monitoring and interpretation efforts, Kate’s work ethic and guidance has become a model for effective leadership and management across the agency. Kate has also since retired from the National Park and we are very thankful for her role in the restoration of the Channel Islands.
Russell Galipeau joined the Channel Islands National Park as superintendent in 2003, in the midst of the decline and recovery effort for island foxes. He brought with him a sincere desire to protect cultural and natural resources and a strong belief in community outreach. Through Russell’s leadership, the park has become a pillar in the community by building strong partnerships that are dedicated to resource protection, tourism and education.
An advocate for island fox recovery efforts from the early days of island fox recovery planning, Russell has brought island fox conservation and island ecosystem restoration to the forefront of natural resource issues and challenges in the National Park Service and beyond.