A Catalina Fox Tale: Overcoming Near Extinction

The Catalina Island Fox is found on Catalina Island and nowhere else in the world. Thanks to the work of the Catalina Island Conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies, the Catalina Fox is making a comeback after a devasting outbreak of the distemper virus in 1999. The fox population plummeted from ~1,300 to a mere 100. (The cause of this outbreak was traced to a stowaway racoon.)

The Catalina Island Fox Recovery Plan involved relocation, vaccinations (including distemper), captive breeding and release, and population monitoring. And it was a total success. By 2004, the same year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Catalina Island Fox as a federally endangered species, the population had increased to 300 so captive breeding was discontinued.

Monitoring continues today with ~ 60 foxes equipped with telemetry collars and regular air tracking. Once a year, foxes are trapped,  counted and given a physical.

The Catalina Island Foxes, especially the older ones ,are prone to ear cancer. The number one cause of fox mortality on the island, surprisingly since there aren’t that many vehicles there, is being hit by cars and trucks. As of 2016,  there are ~1,400 foxes on Catalina. Now that’s a happy ending to a fox tale.

Friendly Fox
This gorgeous collared fox was a bit too friendly, clearly looking for handouts at the Harbor Sands Restaurant and Bar.

On my Catalina MTB adventure (Part I, II, III), I was lucky enough to see 3 foxes (one on the way in the middle of Catalina’s “wildlands”, one while sitting on the patio enjoying happy hour, and one hanging out in the Harbor Sands Bar.  Unluckily, I was not able to capture the picture myself for various reasons. Fortunately, my new friend, Julie Harland, was much luckier than I was so the 2 fox photos I’m sharing are hers.) Note: The last 2 fox sightings are not good signs – most likely an indication that people are feeding them. They’re irresistible, but you have to remember that a habituated fox that depends on human food is a unhealthy, at-risk animal.

Vixen FAQs

How did the foxes arrive at Catalina Island? The theories are that the foxes either hitched a ride on floating debris or were brought there by the island’s first inhabitants.

How long have the foxes been residents of Catalina? ~5,400 years. Genetically speaking, they are descendants of the gray fox.

What do the foxes eat? Mice, lizards, birds, berries, insects and cactus fruit.

How big are they? Adults weigh 4-6 lbs, which makes them smaller than your average house cat.

What are their habits? Foxes are diurnal, active during the day, foraging primarily at dawn or dusk. They are monogamous and are seen in pairs during the breeding season of January through March.

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How can you help?

If you visit Catalina:

  1. Keep dogs on leashes at all times.
  2. Pick up and dispose of your pets waste.
  3. Keep your pets vaccination up to date.
  4. NEVER feed wildlife. A healthy fox is a one that is on a wild diet.
  5. Don’t leave your or your pet’s food and water outside. Feed pets indoors.
  6. Drive slowly and be alert – especially at dawn & dusk (maximum speed 25 mph).
  7. Donate to the Catalina Island Fox Program.

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