The Navy today will begin trapping red foxes that are threatening the survival of two endangered bird species at a wildlife refuge within the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, a base spokesman said Friday.
"The first traps are going to be set this weekend," said Curt Sandberg, acting public information officer at the base.
The Navy hired a state-licensed trapper to remove the 50 to 60 foxes, which have been preying on critical breeding pairs of light-footed clapper rails and California least terns at the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, an 1,100-acre salt marsh inside the 5,000-acre base.
Both birds, once common along the California coast, are on the federal list of endangered species. Federal law requires their protection.
Biologists and environmentalists have criticized the Navy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to act quickly after learning of the fox problem at least two years--and two nesting seasons--ago.
Only five pairs of breeding clapper rails remain of a once prolific colony of about 200 pairs, and some wildlife experts fear the fox eradication program may come too late.
"The clapper rail may be our next condor," said Richard Zemball, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Southern California region.
"They are really in trouble just about everywhere they occur, from Santa Barbara south to the Mexican border," Zemball said.
Least terns have been so threatened by the foxes and other predators in recent years that refuge managers installed an electrified fence around nesting areas on the base. Still, fox paw prints were found by three breaches of the fence last spring.
Tern Hatch Up
Reinforcement of the fence appears to have helped somewhat. So far this year, 50 tern chicks have hatched contrasted with three chicks in 1985 and 33 in 1984. But wildlife service officials say at least one red fox has been seen inside the newly fortified fence.
The trapper, whose name was withheld by base officials "to protect his privacy," Sandberg said, will set out cage traps, snares and padded leg-hold traps to prevent injury.
Captured animals will be removed as quickly as possible, and all those collected by Sunday morning will be taken by military transport to the Wildlife Waystation in Tujunga, said Pat Jones, environmental coordinator for the base and supervisor of the Navy's trapping efforts.
Even after federal wildlife officials agreed on a trap-and-relocation plan in June, efforts to start it have been stymied. Most zoos already have the common Midwestern animal, and "seven or eight states" contacted have refused to grant the necessary permits out of fear that the Seal Beach foxes would carry diseases that could harm native wildlife.
Jones said the Tujunga group has agreed to take about 12 of the foxes. An Irvine park will take one animal, and North Crop Animal Care in Anaheim has agreed to take one or possibly more in a few weeks, Jones said.
Completing the Job
Once Jones has exhausted her list of takers for the foxes, she said, the federal refuge managers will take over disposition of the animals.
The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to hire the same trapper to complete the job of eliminating the foxes, said David J. Brown, assistant supervisor for national wildlife refuges in California.
Federal wildlife officials have said any fox that cannot be relocated to the wild or zoos will be killed by injection. Those that cannot be trapped will be shot as a last resort.
Brown said he and a private animal rights group have met with little success in finding willing zoos or wildlife areas in states where the red fox is common.
He said the private Animal Protection Institute of Sacramento tried but was unable to persuade Kansas officials to accept the foxes.
Animal rights activist Cleveland Amory, who criticized plans to shoot the animals, proposed in an interview this week that his Fund for Animals would take them on its Black Star Ranch in Texas, which already has goats rescued from San Clemente Island and burros from the Southwest.
Jones said, however, that Texas Fish and Game authorities already have refused to let the foxes into their state.
Even if homes are found for all the captured foxes, one veteran trapper said he doubts that the Seal Beach base ever will be completely rid of them.
"You can catch three-fourths of them, but I'll be truthful with you, I don't think you can catch 'em all," said Joel Shows, a trapper for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in San Bernardino who briefly was considered for the job.
"I would sure hate to take it on," said Shows, 49, who has been trapping animals since the age of 6.
"The red fox, he's real smart. As soon as he sees what's happening, it won't take him too long to figure it out," he said. "The last ones left are going to be real wild and spooky."