A Catalina Island fox awaits the attentions of biologists who trap the animals… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)
The Catalina Island fox has made one of the most remarkable recoveries known for an endangered species, rebounding in just 13 years from near extinction brought on by a distemper epidemic, wildlife biologists announced Wednesday.
The number of foxes has reached 1,542, surpassing the population of about 1,300 seen before the animals were ravaged by the disease that scientists believe was introduced by a pet dog or a raccoon from the mainland that hitched a ride on a boat or a barge.
"We're beyond proud," said Ann Muscat, president and chief executive of the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy. "It's a testament to what hard work, passion, money and the resiliency of nature can accomplish."
PHOTOS: Catalina foxes
The animals' growing presence is evident across the island in "scent advertisements" — clumps of telltale scat — left on boulders, retainer walls, barbecues and picnic tables. But despite their growing number, Muscat said, "we can't relax. These furry treasures are still just one infected dog or raccoon away from extinction."
The fox — a subspecies found only on the 76-square-mile island — has become this resort destination's emblematic endangered species in part because of its fierce appeal.
The omnivorous 5-pound animals are gray with pointed noses, reddish ears and feet and black-tipped tails. They live about 10 years, pair for life and, with no natural predators on the island, generally enjoy a relatively laid-back existence.
But the population crashed to roughly 100 in 1999, prompting the conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies to launch a $2-million recovery program that included vaccinations and a captive breeding facility. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the fox as endangered in 2004.
The rebound has federal wildlife authorities elated. "It is one of the great recovery efforts — up to this point," said Stephanie Weagley, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We still have a lot of management and fieldwork to do."
The agency is conducting a five-year status review of the fox, an effort that could lead to eventual removal from the endangered species list. The review takes into account factors such as fluctuations in population and continuing threats.
On an island shared by 3,200 humans, and visited by more than 1 million tourists a year, the leading causes of death for foxes include pet dogs, feral cats and "road kill." The cat-sized foxes are fearless and frequently wander out to sniff at passing vehicles.
Managing the animals now includes trapping foxes, inspecting them for illnesses, vaccinating them against distemper and rabies, outfitting them with telemetry collars and monitoring their behavior.
At daybreak Wednesday, conservancy senior wildlife biologist Julie King and wildlife technician Tyler Dvorak strode through waist-high brush, inspecting the contents of 12 wire box traps baited the night before with kibble and cat food to attract customers. They found four tenants, which growled nervously as King and Dvorak lifted them out to record their vital statistics in a log that chronicles more than a decade of fox research on the island.
Wearing leather gloves, King cradled one of the foxes in her lap and injected a microchip the size of a grain of rice just under the skin between its shoulder blades. Fox No. 57410 was about a year old and somewhat pudgy.
"These are not lean, mean killing machines like wolves," King said. "There's plenty here for them to eat — cactus pears, Catalina cherries, mice — and they can get downright obese."
News of the robust fox population was a main topic of conversation on the island. At the conservancy's nature center a mile south of town, school and youth program specialist Rich Zanelli said, "I'm going to put up a big sign that says, 'Ask me about 1,542.'"