Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places through
science, policy, education, and environmental law.

October 17, 2003

Kieran Suckling 520-623-5252 x 305
Noah Greenwald 503-484-7495
More Information: Island Fox web



On October 16, 2003, the Center for Biological Diversity and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed a legal agreement requiring the agency to place four island fox subspecies on the federal endangered species list, and to map out and protect “critical habitat” areas for them. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data show that endangered species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be improving as species without it.

“We’re ecstatic that the island fox is finally being protected under the Endangered Species Act,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s not much bigger or fiercer than a house cat, but the island fox is the largest land-based predator on the Channel Islands. Its also the only carnivore that occurs only in California. It is one of the state’s most unique and beautiful species."

The island fox is a distant relative of the California gray fox. It is believed to have floated out to the Channel Islands on a raft of logs some 16,000 years ago when ocean levels were very low. As ocean levels rose, the three northern Channel Islands (San Miguel, Santa Roza, and Santa Cruz) formed, each one evolving its own subspecies of fox. Between 2,200 and 4,300 years ago, Native American transported foxes to the southern Channel Islands (San Nicholas, Santa Catalina, and San Clemente) where they again evolved to become unique subspecies.

"The island fox is an evolutionary marvel," said Suckling, "If Darwin had visited the Channel Islands instead of the Galapagos he would have been equally astounded and just as sure to discover the workings of evolution."

The San Miguel Island fox, Santa Rosa Island fox, Santa Cruz Island fox, and the Santa Catalina Island foxes have suffered dramatic population crashes in recent years. On San Miguel Island, for example, the population declined to just 15 animals, after which 14 were captured for captive breeding, leaving only one individual in the wild. Overall, island fox numbers have fallen from approximately 6,000 individuals in 1994 to fewer than 1,660 in 2001.

Two other subspecies (the San Nicolas Island fox and San Clemente Island fox) are not part of the agreement and will not be listed as endangered species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first placed the fox subspecies on its list of “candidates” for Endangered Species Act protection in 1984. The candidate list, however, is purely educational; it does not provide any legal protection. In June 2000, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Institute for Wildlife Studies filed a scientific petition with the Fish and Wildlife Service requesting that it place the four subspecies on the endangered species list. In August 2001 the agency agreed to issue a formal listing proposal for the foxes as part of a precedent-setting legal agreement with the Center that targeted 29 of the most endangered species from Florida to Wyoming to California.

“Today’s agreement is the last chapter in the island fox’s long 19-year wait for federal protection,” said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center, “but there is still lots of work to do to save them from extinction.” Among the threats facing the island fox are historic habitat loss caused by exotic livestock, diseases spread by domestic dogs, and predation by golden eagles. Golden eagles are not native to the Channel Islands. They moved in after the local bald eagle population fell prey to DDT poisoning. The National Park Service, which owns much of the Channel Islands, is working to reintroduce bald eagles, restore native habitats, and breed island foxes in captivity until they can be safely returned to the wild.

According to the terms of the agreement, the Fish and Wildlife Service will publish a final Endangered Species Act listing decision by March 1, 2004 and designate critical habitat by November 1, 2005.

That today’s agreement came in response to a lawsuit is no surprise. The Bush administration is the only administration in the history of the Endangered Species Act never to have listed an endangered species except in response to a court order or petition. It is the only administration never to have designated a critical habitat except in response to a lawsuit. It has the lowest annual listing rate in the history of the Endangered Species Act and the highest annual rate of taking species off the list. To justify these actions, it has purposefully not budgeted enough funds to protect endangered species or carry out court orders to do so. Throughout 2003, it has refused a standing congressional invitation to submit a supplemental budget request for more money to meet court-ordered obligations to designate critical habitat areas. Instead it has used the lack of money as an excuse to override the courts.

The Bush administration’s budgetary manipulations led a federal judge in a separate case on October 10, 2003 to denounce Secretary of Interior Gale Norton’s “dismissive attitude toward the Endangered Species Act” and “obstinate defiance of the ESA.” According to Judge Bury of Tucson, Norton “blames the courts and overly litigious plaintiffs for her present budgetary problems…[but]…the Court notes that Defendant has not requested supplemental funding from Congress to address her need to comply with court ordered critical habitat designations.” See 10-10-03 order by David Bury in Center for Biological Diversity v. Gale Norton.


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