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Monday, November 16, 2015

500 Island Foxes Protected Against Canine Distemper Virus

Canine Distemper poses a serious threat to endangered Channel Island fox populations across all six islands where they live.

Thank You! 
to everyone who donated and helped us reach our goal of


Introduced disease is a major concern for these isolated populations. Working as a community of concerned citizens, you have helped to assure that even if catastrophic disease is introduced 100 individual island foxes will be protected from disease on each island.

 The annual counting of Channel Island foxes and providing of health checks has recently concluded for the 2015 year. See what it's like to work as a field biologist counting island foxes. 

The biologists will be taking the data they have collected this fall to estimate island-wide population numbers and trends. We know that drought has impacted some island fox populations. We will see if scattered spring and summer rains improved island resources.

Thank you again to everyone who helped support FIF's 2015 vaccination fundraiser. 

Working Together We Are Saving the Channel Island Fox.  

Monday, October 26, 2015

Uncovering the Impacts of Population Decline on Disease Immunity in Channel Island Foxes by Nicole Adams

(Thank you to our guest blogger University of Southern California graduate student Nicole Adams)

Besides being adorable, why should we care about the island fox?

You probably know the story of the island foxes–that they suffered great population declines in the last two and a half decades. Over three years the northern islands’ fox populations declined 96-99% due to hyperpredation by goldeneagles. (In other words, unusually large numbers of island foxes were killed for food by golden eagles.) At the same time, on the eastern end of Santa Catalina Island there was a 90% population decrease in one year due to a canine distemper virus outbreak.

Fortunately, rigorous captive breeding programs were swiftly and effectively put in place to save the foxes from sure extinction on some of the islands. Island fox estimates as of 2014 show substantial population recovery. A conservation success story! This is great news for the stability of the Channel Island ecosystem, but should we declare victory and stop worrying about the foxes?

photo courtesy of Kevin Schaffer
I don’t think so. The number of foxes has increased, but such severe population declines can have lasting effects on the genetics of a population. Important questions remain. How much genetic diversity was lost due to these crashes? What type of genetic diversity was lost? Which genes were changed as a result? These questions are crucial to answer because genetic diversity allows the foxes to adapt to their ever-changing environment.

Foxes are continually facing health threats such as those caused by introduced species. Known health concerns in the island fox populations include a number of viruses, bacteria, and fungi that cause diseases. On Catalina, earmites in the foxes often lead to ear tumors. And a new pathogen, a spiny worm, is currently causing fox fatalities on San Miguel.

It is difficult to know when another outbreak like the one on Santa Catalina Island will occur, what the next pathogen will be, or how much genetic diversity will be lost. So it’s important that the fox populations are monitored for the presence of known pathogens and the emergence of new ones. Monitoring for pathogens can be easily done by non-invasive sampling, which allows useful animal material to be collected while causing the least amount of stress on the animal. Therefore, I am monitoring pathogens in fox populations by collecting scat samples, a smelly but non-invasive sampling technique.

Catalina Island fox sitting next to its deposited specimen at USC's Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies; Photo courtesy of Nicole Adams

I received scat samples from all of the six inhabited islands as well as from captive foxes in zoos. I extracted all available DNA out of the scat samples including that from the fox, bacteria, fungi, and fox prey. Then I sequenced 16S rRNA, a common gene that can differentiate among species. I am currently processing the sequences from the scat samples and comparing them to known pathogen sequences in order to identify putative or possible pathogens.

USC undergraduate assistant, Lauren Stoneburner, weighing out island fox scat for DNA extraction. Photo courtesy of Nicole Adams
I will then compare the genetic diversity of a gene family associated with the immune system (major histocompatibility complex II) to the diversity of organisms found in the scat to better understand the current diversity of the immunity genes in the Channel Island fox and how this affects the health of individuals.

The complex population history, combined with ongoing health issues, contribute to the need for conservation of the island foxes. I look forward to sharing my results and conclusions and potentially informing the management practice of these curious critters.

Nicole Adams is a Graduate Student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, CA.

More Research Regarding Island Foxes:

Monday, October 05, 2015

What Do Island-Fox Biologists Do?

Each autumn, field biologists work hard and long hours checking the status of Channel Island foxes. What do island-fox biologists do during the course of an autumn day?

Here are excerpts from some personal accounts from Santa Barbara Zoo Animal Care staff who elected to spend a week providing 64 volunteer hours assisting National Park Service biologists in Channel Islands National Park.

Scott Daugherty (on San Miguel Island):
Our job was to place radio tracking collars on some foxes and collect biological data, so the Park Service could get an accurate count of how many foxes were on the island, and could make observations about how well the whole population was surviving. This is all accomplished by dedicated individuals, trained to trap and handle the endangered foxes safely...
capture cage hidden under a shrub

One thing that I didn’t realize before actually getting out to the island was just how much work it is to participate in these kinds of studies. Just getting to the traps was almost half an hour of hard hiking, and the traps themselves were set 250 meters apart, making each day a minimum of 5 miles of tough terrain, nearly all of it off trail. Each morning, we would get up before sunrise, and hike out to our trapping grid by first light. Each of our 18 traps needed to be checked and reset, and most foxes that were caught needed to get a full work up...

The conditions on San Miguel can be harsh, with regular winds gusting at 30 mph, and the temperature fluctuating from a warm 75˚F during the day to close to freezing over night. Like the California condor, the Channel Island fox recovery is one of the great successes of conservation study and education, and I am extremely proud to be able to participate.

photo courtesy of NPS
Damian Lechner (on Santa Rosa Island):
In September, I went out to Santa Rosa Island to meet up with Angela from the National Park Service.  We set up 3 grids of traps, each consisting of 12 traps. ....  I was shown how to handle the Foxes and [spotted] Skunks that we trapped, check for parasites, record broken teeth, vaccinate the foxes, micro chip, collect blood and urine samples, collect weights, and take whisker samples. 

island fox having teeth checked; photo courtesy of CIC
(To minimize stress to these wild animals, the goal is to complete all data collection and health maintenance tasks in 12 minutes or less.)

After arriving back at the cabin around noon, we processed the blood and urine that we collected and restocked our kits for the following day.  We continued this for the rest of the week then we collected the traps and hiked out with them on our backpacks.  I learned a lot that week, helped to save Island Species and hiked countless miles.  I’m very appreciative for the opportunity given to me to contribute to this project and hope to go out to the Island again next year.

A huge Thank You to the island-fox Field Biologists for all they do on behalf of Channel Island foxes. Vaccinating island foxes against canine distemper and rabies is vital to their future survival. You can help this effort. FIF is trying to raise funds to protect 500 island foxes.

Our thanks also to the Santa Barbara Zoo and their Animal Care staff who care for Channel Island foxes on the mainland and put in countless volunteer hours to assist the National Park. Thank you also to the Santa Barbara Zoo for sharing the personal accounts of their staff.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Protecting Channel Island Foxes Against Distemper Virus

Biosecurity–the threat of introduced disease and non-native species–has become a major issue in the recovery of the Channel Island fox. 

See 2015 Island Fox Status Report

Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) nearly caused the extinction of the Santa Catalina Island fox. Island foxes were vaccinated against this virulent disease until 2012, when a vaccine safe for this rare species became unavailable

A newly available vaccine has been found safe for island foxes. Since June, it has been verified on 30 monitored wild island foxes and the few island foxes in captivity.

Friends of the Island Fox 
hopes to raise $5,000 
to vaccinate 
500 island foxes against Canine Distemper

Wild Channel Island fox having blood drawn during health check.
Biologists are in the field right NOW providing health checks and counting island foxes. The lower price of the new CDV vaccine means that: 
a $10 donation 
will vaccinate an island fox against 
BOTH Canine Distemper and Rabies
in 2015

Twice the protection for $10.

We already have raised $2,800, over half the funds needed. 

Each island fox protected helps secure the population's continuation even in the face of introduced epidemic disease.

Won't you please help in this vital effort to preserve the historic recovery of the endangered Channel Island fox? 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Channel Island Fox Status Update 2015

photo courtesy of M. Solomon
The annual meeting of the Island Fox Conservation Working Group in 2015 reported that the general status of the six subspecies of California's Channel Island foxes is GOOD.

However, four of six islands saw dips or declines in population in 2014. The historic drought and its impacts on food resources is believed to be the cause. Biologists on Santa Catalina have documented a direct connection between rainfall levels and island fox reproduction. Years with drought-level precipitation result in reduced plant food and prey, thereby causing fewer island fox pups to be born or to survive. The extent of drought impact varies significantly by island.

Minimal drought impacts on Santa Cruz Island, 2015
 Despite the drought, recovery of the four endangered subspecies of island fox has been very successful and this spring (March 2015), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced initiation of a status review of the four subspecies. 

Introduced disease continues to threaten all island foxes and a lack of canine distemper virus (CDV) vaccine safe for use in island foxes has been a major concern for two years. The Working Group took urgent steps, and Friends of the Island Fox participated, to determine the effectiveness of a newly available CDV vaccine.

courtesy of E. Gotthelf
All island fox subspecies are maintaining stable populations and there are no issues which put any Channel Island fox subspecies in eminent threat of extinction. The continuing drought, however, has more severely impacted island foxes on San Miguel and San Nicolas Islands. As seen in the past, each island faces its own concerns and challenges.

Island Fox Update 2015 pdf a specific island-by-island summary
  • San Miguel Island - 520 (low of 15 in the year 2000). Population recovered with over 500 individuals since 2010. Slight population dip. Concern: Threat from new parasites continues, as do drought impacts (see below)
  • Santa Rosa Island - 874 (low of 15 in the year 2000). Population recovery stalled by drought, but stable.
  • Santa Cruz Island - 1,750* (low of 62 in the year 2002). Population recovered and robust with over 1,000 individuals since 2009. No discernible drought impacts.
  • Santa Catalina Island - 1,717 (low of 103 in the year 2000). Population recovered and stable with over 1,000 individuals since 2010. Slight population dip. Concern: Drought impacts and human related impacts, including car strike, and high risk for introduced disease.
  • San Clemente Island - 1,230* (not Endangered). Population stable. Concern: Continued fatalities to automobile strike.
  • San Nicolas Island - 263* (not Endangered). Population has declined ~41% since 2012 because of drought impacts. Concern: Habitat destruction has left island foxes dependent on non-native plants and prey which have declined dramatically in the drought, see below.

The graph above shows population numbers on even years, therefore the dip from 2013 is not represented. For more detailed graphs see the Island Fox Update document. The numbers represented  are the official 2014 population figures reported at the Island Fox Conservation Working Group Meeting 6/16/15. *Population figures represent adults only.

Healthy plant and animal populations fluctuate normally with available resources. Recovered island fox populations naturally dip when there is not enough food, water, or territory. There is a natural limit to the number of island foxes an island can support, also known as carrying capacity.

Low rainfall has impacted food resources across the Channel Islands. However, islands have not been impacted equally. Some islands appear to have greater natural drought tolerance.

As recently discovered by analyzing island-fox diet, Santa Catalina and Santa Cruz Islands have greater native plant biodiversity than the other smaller islands. Native island vegetation evolved with periods of drought. Native plants are better able to survive and produce fruit vital for the survival of island animals. The greater the native plant biodiversity, the greater the survival options for island foxes.

island fox footprints among ice plant on San Nicolas
The island-fox-diet study pointed out that island foxes on San Miguel and San Nicolas Islands were dependent on plant and invertebrate species which had been introduced to their islands, replacing native plant habitat.  Unfortunately, these introduced plant species, especially, ice plant, and the non-native creatures that live in it–snails and earwigs, have declined dramatically during the last two years of extreme drought. The impact has been greatest on San Nicolas Island where average island-fox weight has declined and the population has dropped 41% since 2012.

Restoring native vegetation is the best long term solution for healthy island fox populations on these two islands. (for more on this topic, see the Island Fox Update 2015 pdf document above)

A secondary impact of the drought has been increased complications with parasites. Changes in diet and decreased general health leave island foxes more vulnerable to internal and external parasites. Here again, each island has its own specific parasite challenges. (See Island Fox Update 2015 pdf for details) (Spiny-headed worm on San Miguel Island first detected in 2013).

Introduced disease continues to pose a threat to all island foxes, especially on islands visited by people. Dogs, cats, and introduced species, like raccoons, are all avenues for disease to be transported to isolated and disease-naive island foxes. Efforts to verify the effectiveness of a new CDV vaccine for island foxes is currently underway.

Positive Notes:
courtesy of D. Mekonnen
There are early anecdotal signs that the small amount of rain this spring and summer may be improving resources on the islands. More island fox pups have been spotted this summer than during the last two summers. However, the official impact on the populations will not be known until counting begins in fall.
Monitoring with radio collars continues to provide important information to land managers. Radio collars have helped verify that no golden eagles have returned to eat island foxes on the northern islands. Radio collars were instrumental in determining the cause of island-fox decline on San Nicolas Island. And they continue to provide early warning of disease introduction. Radio monitoring collars will also enable land managers to ethically determine the effectiveness of the new CDV vaccine.

Annual island fox health checks, serology testing, and counting identify threats to island fox survival early, so that actions can be taken to protect island populations.

‘Fox-Saver’ bins on Santa Catalina and the Navy's education outreach on San Clemente are all helping to reduce the number of island foxes hit and killed by cars.

Thank you to the Island Fox Conservation Working Group and all of the important work that has helped island foxes recover from the brink of extinction. Thank you also to the many participants on our June Santa Cruz Island Trip that have allowed us to show you their photographs.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

FIF Helps Meet Urgent Need For Channel Island Foxes

At the Island Fox Conservation Working Group meeting on June 16th, we learned of a serious threat looming over Channel Island foxes. The Canine Distemper virus (CDV) is highly contagious and deadly to these small canines. It nearly caused the Catalina Island fox's extinction in 1999.

Since that emergency, Channel Island foxes have been vaccinated for CDV with a specific vaccine designed for ferrets. Unfortunately, the vaccine has not been produced for two years. Island land managers have only been able to use vaccine they had on hand, leaving the majority of island foxes unprotected for the last two years.

A new CDV vaccine has recently become available, however it is unclear whether it will be effective for island foxes. There is great urgency to test the new vaccine before fall counting and health check season. This is the only time when a large number of island foxes are handled by biologists on all islands.

Safe capture cages allow island foxes to be captured for health checks
island fox radio-tracking collars
As part of an emergency effort to verify the effectiveness of the new CDV vaccination, five island foxes will be tested on each island. Each of these individuals, which have never been vaccinated for distemper before, will be caught, blood tested, vaccinated with the new vaccine, radio-collared, and released. 

These radio-collared individuals will be caught again a month later and their blood will be tested to verify that they have built-up antibodies against the disease. ID microchips and records on each animal enable biologists to know which island foxes can participate in this test.

This is an extra unexpected cost for each island. Friends of the Island Fox committed to quickly fund:

FIVE radio-tracking collars for Santa Rosa Island ($1,500) 

FIF Santa Cruz Island Trip 2015
Thanks to the participants on our Santa Cruz Island Trip and generous private donors, we have provided these important funds. 
The vaccine is currently being tested across the islands. If the new CDV vaccine provides protection to Channel Island foxes, we may be raising money for vaccinations to protect as many individuals as possible this fall.

Your support helped us to pledge this important financial commitment. Thank You to all of our conservation supporters.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Observing Channel Island Fox Behavior on Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park
Participants in the Friends of the Island Fox trip to Santa Cruz Island on June 20th had a beautiful day and an opportunity to observe behavior between individual wild Channel Island foxes. Fifteen years ago, when this subspecies of Channel Island fox was facing extinction, such an opportunity was unthinkable.

The island foxes on Santa Cruz Island have made a strong recovery. A baby boom of foxes occurred on Santa Cruz between the fall count in 2007 and 2009. The population jumped from 350 to 1,200. Adult survivorship has been very high, which means we are seeing an increasing number of island foxes between the ages of 5 and 8 years old. These are mature individuals. Island foxes are believed to be in their prime between 2-5 years of age and are estimated to live 8-10 years in the wild.

This trip two elderly animals were noticeable by their broken-down ears and minor injuries to legs and tails. These injuries were most likely inflicted by younger adult island foxes protecting territory. The campground offers an area where infirm animals can potentially find resources, while having some protection from other foxes. 

We observed this older island fox lying down on the ground between campsites where people were active at tables. His coloring camouflaged him well in the dappled shade.

When some campers left their site, a healthy adult island fox checked out their table area. We watched as the slightly larger, but older animal, approached. We didn’t know what to expect.

Submissive behavior of elderly island fox toward another adult.
However, when the older fox got within five feet of the table area, it lowered its head submissively to the younger animal. The younger fox did not chase the older animal or show aggression, yet it physically communicated to the older fox not to approach any closer. Without any direct contact, the older fox was sent off into the bushes.

photo courtesy of Daniel Mekonnen, 2015
We saw 8 - 10 adult island foxes (none were radio-collared individuals). 

We watched island foxes searching for food, retrieving figs, and eating them (Check out the video by Douglas Welch). (The fox jumps up into a shrub at ~2:48) A large percentage of the Santa Cruz Island fox’s diet is fruit.

We’ll have more on the status of the Santa Cruz Island fox in an upcoming Island-by-Island Update. At the Island Fox Conservation Working Group meeting, biologists from The Nature Conservancy reported that a female island fox, born during captive breeding on Santa Cruz, recently passed away at age 12. She is the oldest wild island fox scientifically documented on Santa Cruz Island. Biologists were able to accurately date her age and follow her life because of her ID microchip.

We also had a fantastic encounter with common dolphins on our boat ride home. Hundreds of these colorful dolphins were feeding and swimming right next to us. Look closely and you will see a youngster swimming beside its mother. We saw numerous young dolphins.  (Video of the common dolphins by Douglas Welch).

More photos of the Friends of the Island Fox Trip to Santa Cruz Island:
A special thank you to trip participants Eric Gotthelf, Douglas Welch, Michael Solomon and Daniel Mekonnen for their photos.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

FIF Funds Three "Fox-Saver" Bins for Catalina Island Foxes

Once again, people working together have helped protect the endangered island fox!

The lethal combination of old trash cans, enticing human trash, and proximity to roads with car traffic has created a growing problem for island foxes on Santa Catalina Island. Double Action to Save Island Foxes

Early winter 2014, eleven Catalina island foxes were hit by cars. Most were near areas of known trash problems.

But thanks to support from a wide range of private individuals and organizations, Friends of the Island Fox has met its goal to raise $6,000 to fund three "Fox-Saver" bins on Santa Catalina Island. The three bins will be placed in high-use areas where fox fatalities have been growing.

Thank you to everyone who helped raise funds for this important project. 

These bins not only help endangered island foxes, they create a healthier environment for people and other island species.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Working Together to Save Channel Island Foxes

The success of Channel Island fox recovery is rooted in cooperation among a broad group of government agencies, public and private conservation groups, scientists and researchers, and an active local community. Students, from elementary through high school, have played an active role as Island Fox Ambassadorsraising funds for radio tracking collars, ID microchips, and vaccinations.

This month students from the Buena High Enviromental Club (Ventura, CA) received national recognition for their efforts in restoring native plant ecosystems in Channel Islands National Park. The students from Buena High have also been strong supporters of island fox conservation.

Friends of the Island Fox's motto has always been "Working Together to Save the Island Fox." Many endangered species to not have the benefit of people working in collaboration. We have seen the Channel Island fox rebound from the edge of extinction because people working together can facilitate positive change.

photo courtesy of K. Lampkin
Three Cheers for our active young people and Many Thanks to all the people, near and far, who have helped to fund conservation efforts that have worked!
It all begins with the annual meeting of the Island Fox Working Group in June. Last year we found out about the threat posed to island foxes by trash cans on Santa Catalina. (2014 meeting of the Island Fox Working Group) You helped us respond to this conservation challenge. Any day now we hope to announce we have reached our goal on this effort.

This year drought and biosecurity are on the meeting agenda, both pose threats to stable Channel Island fox populations. Stay tuned for updates from the biologists, veterinarians, and scientists working in the field. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

FIF 2015 Trip to See Channel Island Foxes

Early summer brings island fox pups out of their dens to explore their world. Parents are busy providing for growing youngsters and teaching them how to find their own food.

The successful recovery of endangered Channel Island foxes means there are greater opportunities to see these rare island predators in their wild habitat

TRIP SOLD OUT as of 5/7/15
Join Friends of the Island Fox for a day of discovery and adventure as we travel to:

Scorpion Cove, Santa Cruz Island
Channel Islands National Park
June 20, 2015

Day Trip Itinerary:  
  • 8:15 AM: Check in with Friends of the Island Fox at the Island Packers’ Ventura Harbor dock, at 1691 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, for a 9 AM departure to Santa Cruz Island, Scorpion Cove.

  • Arrive on Santa Cruz Island mid-morning and explore with Friends of the Island Fox leaders to view island foxes and other endemic plants and animals. 
  • 4:00 PM: Island Packers’ boat departs Santa Cruz Island, returning to Ventura Harbor around 5:00 PM

Tickets are $65.00 per person. 
(A percentage of the fee will go to support island fox recovery efforts.)
View from the bluff on Santa Cruz Island
Reservations are limited and will be provided on a first come basis. To book reservations, please download the Reservation Form.

Send the completed form with your check, made payable to the "Friends of the Island Fox" to the address on the form.  Reservations will be taken in the order received, and no reservations can be accepted without payment.

At the time of booking you will receive further trip details, including: maps of where to meet, what to pack, suggested clothing and other items of interest. 

Look closely at this photo. Island foxes are smart and curious, food items must be secured at all times.

If you have questions, contact FIF at
or (805) 228-4123

What to remember when visiting the island fox. 

Previous trips to Santa Cruz Island:

May 2014 Trip
June 2013 Trip and Items on the Beach 
May 2012 Trip