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On this military training ground, foxes aren't afraid of SEALs

Being struck by vehicles is the No. 1 threat to the San Clemente Island fox. If its population dwindles so low that it's placed on the federal endangered species list, training could be curtailed on the Navy-owned island.

February 28, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Wayne, a young San Clemente Island fox, is used as an "ambassador" in military briefings on the island. Training may have to be curtailed on the Navy-owned island if the fox population dwindles.
Wayne, a young San Clemente Island fox, is used as an "ambassador"… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Clemente Island — Some of the most fearsome military personnel in the world train on this rocky, windswept island: Marine infantry and Navy SEALs.

But the largest mammal native to the island — average size, 3 to 4 pounds — is not afraid of them at all.

That's a problem on a 22-mile-long island with a ship-to-shore/air-to-ground bombardment range on its south end, beaches for amphibious assault training on the north and a heavily traveled road down its spine.

The San Clemente Island fox (Urocyon littoralis) is "naive" about threats to its existence, biologists say. Threats such as a moving vehicle tire.

Add lots of night maneuvers, only a few lights and the fact the fox is nocturnal. The result last year was 65 foxes listed as roadkill, double the number from the previous year.

Anything that endangers the San Clemente Island fox requires a swift, multi-pronged federal effort.

If the fox population were to dwindle so low that it's placed on the federal endangered species list, training could be curtailed on the Navy-owned island, 70 miles from San Diego. Already, sniper training had to be reconfigured to avoid hitting a bird nesting area.

"Preserving the fox means preserving training," said Melissa Booker, the Navy's wildlife biologist for San Clemente Island who oversees a $650,000-a-year program to preserve the animal.

The island fox is spread out. Some live — and die — in the bombardment area. Others live along the beaches. Still others live amid the canyons and grassy stretches where the only sounds are the whistling wind and the song of the Western meadowlark.

Being killed by vehicles is the No. 1 threat to the fox — although attacks from feral cats are not uncommon. The average fox lives four to six years, using rock piles, culverts or shrubs for dens.

Each July, Booker and others trap some foxes to inoculate them and fit them with electronic collars to track their movements. In most cases, foxes live in pairs: one male, one female.

For such a small creature, the San Clemente island fox has drawn a lot of scientific attention. The Institute for Wildlife Studies, based in Arcata in Northern California, has a fox specialist on the island who runs a hospital for sick or injured foxes.

"The fox seems like a goofy, fun-loving animal, but he's still a predator, always looking for food," said Dan Biteman, a researcher at the institute.

Because of this winter's plentiful rain, food has been abundant. The fox population has soared to an estimated 1,100. In the early part of the last decade, it had dwindled to several hundred.

In 1999, the Navy began shooting foxes because they'd become a serious threat to the loggerhead shrike, an endangered bird species. After an outcry from environmentalists, that practice was halted.

The shrike population has increased substantially and the fox is no longer considered a threat to its existence. No attempt is made to keep shrikes and foxes apart in the wild.

A researcher from Cal State Stanislaus examined fox feces for clues about its eating habits. Sailors were sent on a scat-collection mission. A UC Davis pathologist has examined tissue samples from fox necropsies, and a researcher from the University of Wyoming is studying the fox's whiskers.

A team from Colorado State University has several fox projects, including the roadkill problem. The team mapped the time and place of each vehicle-caused death, looking for patterns.

The Institute for Wildlife Studies, under contract to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, is finishing a 100-page "epidemic response plan" in case distemper or rabies ever reaches the island. A distemper outbreak nearly wiped out a population of foxes on another of the Channel Islands.

To reduce the chances of distemper or rabies, no pets are permitted on the island, although some that lived there before the rule was enacted — such as the firehouse dog — are allowed.

To reduce roadkill, grass along major stretches of road is mowed to make the foxes more visible before they attempt to dart across.

The first thing visitors see when they arrive at the island's air terminal is a sign about the foxes. The warning "SLOW FOXES" is also painted on roadways.

Military personnel arriving on the island receive a briefing that includes orders to be careful with the creatures, including not to feed them or leave dumpsters open. A brochure lists three phone numbers to call in the event of an accident.

Anyone running over a fox is assured that he will not be punished. "Reporting a fox accident is always the best option and is helpful to all," one handout reads. There is also a DVD.

Something new was recently added to the save-the-fox briefing given to new personnel: Wayne, a young fox who was nearly killed in a fight with a larger fox. A veterinarian from the mainland visited San Clemente Island to repair Wayne's hernia and remove a diseased testicle.

Now recovered, Wayne is not considered a candidate for a return to the wild.

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