Island foxes, one of the only carnivores endemic to California, have been distinguished from foxes on the mainland by 16,000 years of evolution — ever since they colonized the modern-day Channel Islands, which were then a single, big land mass. But though these little canines pre-date the invention of the wheel, in modern times they’ve been threatened by golden-eagle predation, diseases introduced by domestic dogs, diminished food supply, and habitat loss and fragmentation caused by development and nonnative animals like feral pigs.
To address all of these threats, in 2000 the Center and the Institute for Wildlife Studies petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Endangered Species Act protection for four of the six island fox subspecies: the San Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island, Santa Cruz Island, and Santa Catalina Island foxes (each named for the island on which they live). Despite a Center lawsuit, the Service refused to process the petition until after a 2001 agreement to expedite protection for the fox and 28 other imperiled species. In 2004, after more Center litigation, the Service finally listed all four imperiled fox subspecies as endangered. By the beginning of the following year — thanks to Endangered Species Act protection, captive-breeding programs, golden-eagle relocations, bald-eagle reintroductions and efforts to remove feral pigs —- island fox populations were on the increase by 2005.
About a decade later, this fox's tale became an Endangered Species Act succe ss story. In August 2016 the Service announced that it was officially delisting three of the four fox subspecies (the San Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island and Santa Cruz Island foxes) — and was downlisting the Santa Catalina Island fox — the fourth subspecies — from “endangered” to “threatened” to reflect its status improvement.
The Santa Catalina Island fox remains in need of federal protection as a threatened species because it still faces the ongoing threat of introduction of disease from stowaway raccoons or visitors letting their dogs off leash, and resulting canine distemper outbreaks have caused declines in foxes on Santa Catalina Island. But a vaccination program has been initiated to protect this fox from the disease, and biologists are hopeful that its numbers will continue to rise.