Little Foxes Making Very Big Comeback

Times Staff Writer

A rare fox no bigger than a housecat may be saved from extinction on Santa Catalina Island, thanks to scientists fighting for its survival with traps, cages and a cutting-edge vaccine.

In an age when so many endangered-species dramas star lobbyists and lawyers, this little-noticed campaign 26 miles off the Los Angeles coast may actually be a success story -- although ever-cautious scientists will not declare victory yet.

What they will acknowledge is that the Santa Catalina Island fox, nearly wiped out by canine distemper virus, is slowly growing in numbers, from only 100 four years ago to nearly 250 today.

"All the signs are going the right way," said biologist Peter Schuyler, who oversees ecological restoration for the Catalina Island Conservancy, the nonprofit group that manages most of the island.

The turnaround reflects new techniques for resuscitating rare species as well as the sheer will of wildlife biologists and veterinarians nationwide. The $1-million cost was paid for, not only by foundation grants, but by small donors who rallied to save a fox found nowhere else on Earth.

The low-profile program will move into the spotlight today when 10 gray-coated pups raised in captivity will be released into the wild, as reporters and camera crews look on.

The release, the largest in the program's history, comes two years after the first release of six captive-bred pups. Those animals in turn produced wild pups of their own last spring -- an event typically considered a milestone in captive breeding circles.

All but one of the pups released to date have survived, statistics that have surprised even island fox expert Dave Garcelon, director of the Institute for Wildlife Studies, the firm contracted by the conservancy to help save the fox.

The diminutive fox would have enthralled Charles Darwin. Like the creatures he studied in the Galapagos Islands, it is a textbook example of evolutionary biology.

It is smaller than its distant relative, the mainland gray fox, weighing only 5 to 6 pounds. It is less suspicious of people, having grown up without predators.

But it is still vulnerable to mainland diseases. When canine distemper virus was introduced to the island in the late 1990s, possibly by a visiting pet, it raced through a population that numbered as many as 1,300 foxes. Dead foxes turned up on roadsides. Researchers determined that foxes had virtually disappeared from land east of the Two Harbors isthmus, constituting 80% of the entire island.

Fortunately for the foxes, research was underway on a canine distemper vaccine crafted for animals too sensitive for the typical vaccine used on dogs.

"It was incredibly timely," said Winston Vickers, staff veterinarian at the Institute for Wildlife Studies.

Although canine distemper is best known among domestic dogs, it can also sicken certain wild animals.

Merial, an animal pharmaceutical firm, developed an experimental vaccine to protect pet ferrets. When National Zoo pathology chief Richard J. Montali heard about the new vaccine, he recognized that it might help stave off distemper among wild ferrets and some other wild animals as well, and he arranged for clinical trials.

Biologists working with the Catalina fox contacted Montali and, after a trial run, they trapped the remaining foxes and injected them with vaccine.

Today, the vaccine may have staved off extinction for the foxes, as well as the black-footed ferret. Exotic animals such as the giant panda and the red panda are now routinely vaccinated at zoos in the United States, and Montali is helping Chinese researchers determine whether the vaccine could protect giant pandas in Chinese breeding programs.

The vaccine did not resolve the problem of the island fox population's precipitous decline. Biologists launched a breeding program in the fall of 2000, bringing in several pairs of foxes and keeping them in captivity so that their pups could be helped to maturity. Starting in 2001, fox pups have been released annually in late autumn when they were about 7 months old, typically the age they begin living on their own in the wild. The third release occurred Nov. 11 with five pups and a small audience of donors, and the fourth will follow today.

One pup is remaining behind. The small female became too familiar with humans during her captivity, a phenomenon that sometimes occurs in such breeding programs, biologists said. Conservancy workers have named her Ne Shun Tachi, or Tachi for short, which means "Little Girl of Hope" in the language of the original Tongva inhabitants of the island. They plan to utilize her in conservancy education programs.

Biologists elsewhere in the Channel Islands are also struggling to save foxes.

Six of the islands have their own subspecies of fox. On San Clemente Island, the U.S. Navy has been working with biologists to shore up the San Clemente Island fox population. On Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands, the National Park Service is trying to rescue three fox subspecies from predation by golden eagles, a problem that is not known to exist on Catalina.

Those three subspecies, along with the Catalina fox, are candidates for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, and all four populations are expected to be granted "endangered" status in late winter.

Restoring the foxes is only part of a complex project to return Catalina to a semblance of its natural state. During the past century, grazing by nonnative sheep, goats and bison severely damaged the island's vegetation and placed other animals in danger of extinction. The conservancy has removed most grazing animals, most recently last week when 104 bison were shipped to the South Dakota prairies.

Such restoration programs can take many decades to succeed. But on Catalina, the effort could prove simpler than most because 88% of the island -- fully 42,000 acres -- is managed by a single entity, the Catalina conservancy. The nonprofit group was established in 1977 by the family of William Wrigley Jr., the chewing-gum magnate who in 1916 bought all of Catalina except the town of Avalon for $2 million. The group's work is funded largely by private donations.

Scientists caution that a stable fox population is still a few years away. They are discussing more ways to protect the foxes and reduce the threat of canine distemper. Mainland dogs are banned from visiting other Channel Islands.

"We're hopeful there won't be another outbreak," said Sandy Vissman, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who works with Catalina wildlife. "The effort so far has been real positive, and it's been thoughtfully done."

If 300 or more foxes can thrive in the wild, the threat of their extinction could be reduced to less than 1%, Schuyler said. And if the current successes continue, he said, that could happen in the next year to two years.

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