A federal judge declared Thursday that red foxes are fair game for government trappers at a national wildlife refuge in Seal Beach, finding that the foxes can be killed because they pose a significant threat to two endangered species of birds.
U.S. District Judge Robert J. Kelleher refused to grant an animal rights group's request for an injunction that would have prohibited the U.S. government from killing or maiming the foxes at the refuge within the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station.
Although a federal court trial is pending on a suit filed by the Orange County-based Animal Lovers Volunteer Assn., government officials said after Kelleher's ruling that they expect the trapping and killing of the animals to resume immediately. Trapping of the foxes had been permitted but killing them had been prohibited under a court order of last week.
The Navy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have ordered the trapping and killing of several hundred of the foxes since 1986, an effort they say is essential to preserve two species of birds on which the foxes prey: the light-footed clapper rail and the California least tern.
Foxes Not Natives
Both birds are native to California and are listed nationally as endangered species. The red foxes, which are not native to California, are believed to have been introduced in the area many decades ago.
The animal rights group challenged the trapping program almost immediately, and a legal battle that has pitted supporters of the foxes against those backing the birds has since been mired in federal trial and appellate courts.
While the issue remains to be decided in the coming federal court trial, Kelleher made clear in his ruling Thursday that, so far, he finds the evidence overwhelmingly in the government's favor.
In refusing to grant the Animal Lovers Volunteer Assn. a preliminary injunction to halt the fox trapping, Kelleher said he was strongly persuaded that to allow the red foxes to roam unhindered within the 5,000-acre weapons station "would jeopardize the lives of the two endangered species." The military site includes the Anaheim Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where the birds nest.
Only 6 Clapper Rail Pairs
Kelleher said he was particularly swayed by testimony Thursday from Richard Zembal, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who said that the population of the clapper rails has generally declined in the last few years to a low of only 6 pairs earlier this year.
Although he knew of only a few direct sightings of the red foxes preying on the clapper rails, Zembal said numerous signs around the birds' nests--such as fox hairs and tracks--make the danger apparent. "There's no question . . . (the red foxes) are a predator," he told the judge.
Kelleher said that Congress, through passage of recent environmental protection statutes, has made clear that when the interests of two competing species hang in the balance, an endangered animal should receive the higher priority.
But officials with the Animal Lovers group, disputing Kelleher's findings, said they plan to press ahead for a full trial on the issue in hopes of gaining a permanent injunction against the government's killing of the red foxes.
"I was absolutely flabbergasted by the judge's decision, because the hard evidence all points the other way from his decision," said Harold Baerg, president of the animal lovers group.
He maintained that the government's policy in Seal Beach, in addition to moving toward the virtual extinction of a species of fox that was brought into this area, has inadvertently harmed other animals in the refuge as well.
Indeed, U.S. Department of Agriculture trapper Craig Knight testified that in the course of catching about 84 red foxes last year, his traps also caught 60 untargeted skunks, opossums and wild cats. Like the foxes, they too were killed by lethal injection.
Federal officials could not say how many foxes still roam the Seal Beach site. According to Animal Lovers officials, about 263 of the animals have been killed by the government in the last 3 years.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert B. Briggs said Kelleher's decision was an important affirmation of the government's position. He said he expects federal officials to complete an environmental assessment of the red fox situation in Seal Beach by November, as ordered by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a decision earlier this year.
RED FOX AT A GLANCE
( Vulpes vulpes )
Color: Rich reddish brown, with white-tipped tail and black ears and legs.
Coat: Long guard hairs and soft, fine underfur.
Length: 36 to 42 inches (about 13 to 16 inches of which is tail).
Height: 15 inches at the shoulder.
Weight: about 15 pounds.
Diet: Small mammals (chiefly mice and rabbits), eggs, fruit and birds.
Habitat: Highly adaptable, but prefers mixed farmlands and wood lots.
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica