Friends of the Island Fox Boosts Research and Conservation Initiatives with Much-needed Funding
Undoubtedly, the story of the island fox (Urocyon littoralis) is one of the resounding successes in conservation.
Foxes were nearly wiped out by a combination of disease and invasive predators in the late 1990s. Extinction seemed so imminent that entire island populations were scooped up and placed in captive breeding programs.
Then, thanks to decisive action taken by environmentalists to vaccinate the foxes and eliminate introduced species on the island, the foxes recovered almost as quickly as they had collapsed. In 2016, several populations under the Endangered Species Act were removed from the list, the fastest recovery on record for a mammal.
With the delisting comes a new set of challenges for the fox, however, as federal funding has declined in response, despite the animals still facing a number of threats – both new and old.
“Now that the foxes have been taken off the list, it’s more difficult for organizations to get money. There is less federal funding available… it is becoming more important for nonprofits to help raise money and close these funding gaps, ”said Mike Watling, Friends of the Advisory Board member. Fox Island (FIF) and naturalist working in the Channel Islands. .
Created in March 2005, the FIF is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting “efforts to preserve and protect the island fox (Urocyon littoralis) on the Channel Islands of California through conservation and education programs.
FIF works alongside the mosaic of organizations governing the archipelago, including The Nature Conservancy – which owns the majority of Santa Cruz Island – the Catalina Island Conservancy and the National Park Service.
“We are working directly with their chief biologist for the [National Park Service], Laura Shaskey. That’s the earth biologist over there. We work with them and discuss their needs, and then we continue to provide funding where we can to meet that need, ”said Watling.
According to Watling, the FIF is also working to secure funds for materials such as radio collars to monitor foxes and fox boxes for use by park visitors, as well as original research to better understand the fox. of the island and contribute to scientific literature.
Using radio collars to monitor foxes can be helpful in many ways. Tying collars to unvaccinated young foxes, called sentries, gives environmentalists a window into the movement of foxes as well as the causes of fox mortality.
“With these foxes, the radio collar has a mortality sensor and it emits a specific signal [so] that the biologist can retrieve the fox carcass and determine the cause of death and if action is needed, ”Watling said.
Last year, FIF funded 44 radio necklaces, their highest number in a single year to date.
Fox boxes, on the other hand, work the same as bear boxes in places like Yosemite National Park and Sequoia, keeping foxes away from food brought by park visitors.
“It’s not so much so that the foxes aren’t raiding the trash,” Watling said.
“What happens is the foxes will get into a dumpster. And the foxes are small; they are about the size of a house cat. It really is one of the smallest species of fox in the world. They are so small that if they fall into the big dumpster-shaped bins, they cannot get out and they will eventually starve.
Perhaps the most interesting is the original research supported by the FIF. The FIF has funded surveys of tick-borne diseases on Santa Catalina Island and serological testing for internal parasites that affect foxes on San Miguel Island, for example.
Since 2018, the FIF has made $ 5,000 available to researchers and ecologists in annual grants, providing recipients with money to focus on a number of research topics – as well as conservation initiatives.
“We ask, ‘Are we going to make the most of the money we are providing for […]our mission concerning foxes? What will be best for researchers and their work? ‘ Watling said.
In 2019, one of these projects funded by grants from the organization was a series necropsies conducted by Stacy Baker and Juliann Schamel. The duo collected and processed fox teeth kept at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum.
With this information, they were able to determine the age of the foxes at death by looking at the cementum in the teeth, a “thin mineralized tissue covering the root surface of teeth, ”according to Watling.
This year, despite the disruption caused by the novel coronavirus, the FIF still plans to award grants as before, with applications due in late August and grants awarded in late September.
As Watling said, the continued interest in a better understanding of foxes is the best way to protect their survival, as they are animals sequestered on these small islands – besides being very similar genetically.
“We are in the midst of a pandemic here. Can you imagine if we were all genetically identical, and COVID was coming? Imagine how fast this could pass through our population. Foxes face similar challenges, ”Watling said.
“It’s great to see more people visiting the Channel Islands, but as you have more visitors, you have more opportunities to introduce threats. There is still a lot we don’t know, and there is a lot that masters and doctorates can add to this knowledge base regarding lifelong recovery.
“He’s an animal that literally has nowhere to go.”