For the past three years, authorities at the 1,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station have been trapping and killing red foxes--275 of them so far.
The killings have triggered a battle that will continue this year in U.S. District Court.
The foxes, advocates of the trapping note, belong to a non-native subspecies brought to California from the East Coast by furriers and hunters between 50 and 100 years ago. Now, they are breeding out of control and are threatening the survival of local species of endangered birds by stealing their eggs.
Fox populations along the coast are reaching crisis levels because their only natural enemy, the coyote, has been chased to the borders of civilization by guns and development.
Now, biologists say, human intervention is the only way to solve the problem. Failure to act, some say, could result in the extinction of California least terns, light-footed clapper rails and other indigenous bird species.
"If we were not acting to control the population of the foxes, you could probably write the least tern off as a species," said Larry Sitton, Department of Fish and Game wildlife management supervisor for Southern California. While the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, among others, support the fox shooting, others have battled to stop it. Orange County's Animal Lovers Volunteer Assn. filed a lawsuit against the Navy in 1986, hoping to stop the "needless killing of foxes," said prosecuting assistant Mimi Blakeslee.
The association lost its case in U.S. District Court, and its request for an injunction was denied. But in an appeal it won an order for an environmental impact study, with a hearing set for March 12.
"Our position is that the evidence doesn't support the trappings," Blakeslee said. "The evidence so far has been like, 'Oh, I found fox paw prints around a nesting area.' Does that justify the killing of 275 foxes?" she said.
But Navy public information officer Tom Thomas said: "We have documented cases of predation, and the facts as I have seen them indicate that foxes are to blame for declines in populations."
The association, supported by the National Humane Society, blames pollution for the decline in the bird populations. Thomas conceded that five of nine sites tested on the refuge had "elevated levels of contaminants." But any effect on birds, he said, "hasn't been proven. That question, obviously, is why we're in court."
Dick Zembal, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the fight is often characterized more by emotion than evidence.
"We're fighting a cultural battle, as well as an aesthetic one. Looks have a lot to do with how people perceive things; they see the fox with the bushy tail and the big eyes and they want to protect him. A lot of the time, people don't take the time to understand what's going on biologically," he said.
The "major point we need to look at here is, for God's sake, the refuge was set up in large part to protect endangered species. If we are going to be disallowed to protect the endangered species, to do the most we can, even on a refuge, how are we going to recover those species?"