Endangered island fox population booms

February 5, 2009 8:02:38 AM PST
A decade after they were nearly wiped out by disease, the distinct wild foxes on Santa Catalina Island have made a huge recovery.

The Catalina Island fox, a subspecies of 5-pound foxes unique to the island 22 miles off the Southern California coast, topped out at 784 in a recent count, biologists said Tuesday. That's up from just 100 or so in 1999, when the population dwindled after an outbreak of canine distemper virus. The island once had about 1,300 of the foxes.

"These numbers are fantastic news," said Julie King, senior wildlife biologist for the Catalina Island Conservancy.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put the animals on the endangered species list in 2004.

King said a dry year in 2007 followed by a wet 2008 was beneficial for the foxes.

The 2007 drought killed off many mule deer. The foxes grew fat off the carcasses and had large litters in the 2008 breeding season. Then last year's heavier rain made the rodent population explode, providing a good food source for the young.

"The mice were convenient to-go packages of protein for females to retrieve and feed to their pups," King said.

When the population fell to its 1999 low, the conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies started a $2 million recovery program that included captive breeding and vaccinations.

"For a small conservancy to bring a species back from the brink of extinction to a stabilized, growing population in less than 10 years is no small feat," said Carlos de la Rosa, the conservancy's chief conservation and education officer.

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