Sitting just off the coast of California is a chain of eight small islands, five of which make up the Channel Islands National Park. These islands create what is considered one of the richest marine biospheres in the world, and are home to many species found only on these specks of rock in the sea. That includes the Island fox, one of the smallest canids in the world and an endangered species -- a species that nearly disappeared entirely if it weren't for conservation efforts that not only brought numbers back up, but did so in record time.

"Due to the remarkable success of the Endangered Species Act, recovery actions by land managers and conservation partners have led to dramatic population increases on all four islands since listing, effectively bringing the species back from the brink of extinction," said Steve Henry, field supervisor in a Ventura Fish and Wildlife office press release. "To date, it appears that this is the fastest population rebound due to recovery actions and ESA protections for any land mammal in the United States."

island fox

In 2004, four subspecies of Island fox -- the San Miguel Island fox, Santa Rosa Island fox, Santa Cruz Island fox and Santa Catalina Island fox -- were listed as endangered on the Federally Threatened and Endangered Species list. These foxes are found only on six of the eight Channel Islands. Such a small range, and with nowhere to escape to, problems can hit hard and fast for such species. For the island fox, a significant decline occurred in the 1990s due to a canine distemper outbreak and predation by golden eagles.

Golden eagles were once kept in check by the island's bald eagles, which didn't prey on the foxes as a main food source. But bald eagles all but disappeared from the area due to the impacts of DDT pesticide. Without the bald eagles around, and with a rise in non-native food sources on the islands, the golden eagles could feast as they wanted and that included the island foxes. The change in the islands tells the story of the fragility and interconnectedness of an ecosystem in bold letters.

Yet already they may soon be considered for removal from the list thanks to the success of a captive breeding program, removal of golden eagles and their non-native prey, and the return of bald eagles to their historic territories. Two of the subspecies, the San Miguel Island fox and the Santa Rosa Island fox were down to a mere 15 individuals each. They now number 577 and 894 respectively. The Santa Cruz Island fox and the Santa Catalina Island fox are back up to 1,354 and 1,852 individuals. This represents enough of a population rebound for a review of their endangered status, and a bit of a celebration.

"While the island fox still faces a multitude of threats on Catalina Island, we see this as an example of how a well-managed recovery effort can make a tremendous impact on an endangered or threatened species prospects for long-term survival," said Julie King, the Catalina Island Conservancy’s director of conservation and wildlife management, in the press release.

island fox

Related posts on MNN:

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

Endangered island fox is back from the brink after record-breaking recovery
Foxes living only on the Channel Islands off California nearly disappeared forever.