After two years of study, the U.S. Navy today will begin trapping red foxes that threaten the survival of two endangered bird species at a wildlife refuge in 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 base public information officer.
The Navy hired a state-licensed trapper to remove the 50 to 60 foxes that have been preying on critical breeding pairs of light-footed clapper rails and 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 California's coast, are on the federal endangered species list. Federal law requires their protection.
Slow to Act
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 that the fox eradication program may come too late.
"The clapper rail may be our next condor," said Richard Zemball, a biologist for the federal 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 their nesting area on the base. Still, fox tracks were found near three breaches of the fence last spring.
Fence Shored Up
Reinforcement of the fence appears to have helped somewhat. So far this year, 50 tern chicks have hatched, compared to only three chicks in 1985 and 33 in 1984. However, Wildlife Service officials said that 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, today will set out cage traps, snares and padded leg-hold traps to prevent injury to the foxes.
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 the trap-and-relocation plan in June, efforts to start it were stymied. Most zoos already have the common Midwestern animal, and "seven or eight states" contacted refused to grant the necessary permits in fear that the Seal Beach foxes might 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.
Federal wildlife officials have said any fox that cannot be relocated into the wild or placed in zoos will be killed by injection. Those that cannot be trapped will be shot as a last resort.
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 them all," said Joel Shows, a trapper for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in San Bernardino.
"I would sure hate to take it on," said Shows, 49, who has been trapping animals since he was 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."