What Does the Fox Say? The island fox came back from the brink. Can red wolves do the same?

About twenty miles off the coast of California lies a unique and largely self-contained ecosystem in the form of Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the eight Channel Islands which break like the backs of dragons from the sea. One of the species born on this isolated gem was the Island Fox, whose population which once numbered as high as 3,000 individuals. For at least 10,000 years, these foxes lived free from predation in their protected habitat removed from the mainland, their bodies shrinking in size over successive generations to fit more perfectly into the natural ecosystem of the island. But by 2001, less than 100 individual foxes remained on the island.

This is a story which bears remarkable similarities, for those familiar, to that of the Red Wolf.

In both stories, the steep decline in endemic population can be attributed to human interference— though in the case of the Island Fox, our fault is slightly less directly evident than it is with the Red Wolf. The direct cause of the Island Fox’s decline struck in the 1990s, when a non-native population of Golden Eagles encroached upon the island of Santa Cruz, and began preying upon the small, cat-sized foxes who— having evolved without the threat of aerial predators— were left critically vulnerable to these invaders.

Golden Eagles are not native to Santa Cruz Island— they were drawn there, and allowed to flourish by human interference with the natural ecosystem. The primary food source which drew Golden Eagles to the island came in the form of feral pigs, who themselves arrived on the island during its ranching period, and escaped their confines to establish a wild population across the island. But even with this tempting food source, Golden Eagles were for many years prevented from gaining a foothold on the island. Native Bald Eagles originally filled the role of apex aerial predator, ignoring the vulnerable Island Fox in favor of the endless offerings of the sea. Bald Eagles flourished on the Channel Islands until the mid-1900s, when they came to face their own brush with extinction— the insecticide DDT had for years been poisoning watersheds and slowly making its way up the food chain, weakening the eggshells of Bald Eagles and decimating the global population in a matter of years. Golden Eagles quickly moved in to fill the vacuum left by their less-fortunate counterparts, preying at first on the feral pigs of the island, but quickly coming to favor the smaller and more naive Island Foxes, and nearly driving the vulnerable species to extinction.

In 2004, the federal government listed the Island Fox as Critically Endangered, and began a management program to save the species from annihilation. A joint effort between The Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service laid out several steps to rehabilitate the species and address the causes of its decline. Headed by The Nature Conservancy, a local captive-breeding program was established, along with a highly-involved fox monitoring program, which confirmed Golden Eagle predation as the major threat to the Island Fox. To address this, the three agencies worked together to remove feral pigs from the island, while simultaneously initiating a live-capture and relocation program for the eagles.

Within three years of the program’s initiation, all Golden Eagles had been removed from the island, the captive breeding program had been concluded, and breeding Bald Eagles had returned to the land they once called home. In 2016, only twelve years after the recovery program began, the Island Fox was removed from the endangered species list— its population on Santa Cruz Island had grown to over 2,000 individuals.

How— in twelve short years— did the West Coast accomplish what the East could not in over forty? The Island Fox and the Red Wolf faced nearly identical odds in their brushes with extinction, but somehow the Island Fox returned to flourish while the Red Wolf still suffers at the edge of oblivion. Somewhere— within the story of the Island Fox— lies the answer to the riddle of the Red Wolf’s survival.

Island Time

The most obvious difference between the conservation programs of the Island Fox and the Red Wolf is the fact that the Island Fox’s recovery took place on a self-contained island, while the Red Wolf finds itself forced to share real estate with a rapidly expanding human population. This distinction could be enough for many naturalists to reject any comparison between the two species, as they would view the Island Fox as having a marked advantage— and they would be right. The Island Fox was blessed in its containment. Its isolation allowed conservationists to pinpoint the causes of its decline quickly and accurately, and enabled them to set up a recovery plan free from outside disruption.

The Red Wolf has not been so lucky. Its recovery has from the start been plagued by interference from those who share its environment. The Red Wolf shares its habitable landscape with not only a natural competitor (coyotes) but also an unnatural predator (humanity).

Throughout the years of the Red Wolf recovery program, one of the biggest threats to its success has remained the same as the original cause for its establishment— shotgun mortality. While the Island Fox is unable to stray from its protected habitat, no such borders exist for the Red Wolf. Since 2013, the Fish & Wildlife Service reports, suspected or confirmed gunshot has been the single greatest verifiable cause of Red Wolf mortality, even though these animals remain a federally protected species. Although they were released onto federal land, Red Wolves naturally stray onto private land, are mistaken for coyotes, and shot. Though tragic, this is not necessarily unexpected. Animals widen their habitats— it’s a tool of survival. And Red Wolves, living in their small family groups rather than large packs, have it even worse. When they face competition in one area, they move to another and, in this unfortunate case, stray into more dangerous territory.

The Island Fox was blessed with an environment which encouraged a natural protection of the species. The obvious question, then, is this: how can an environment be created for the Red Wolf which bares the same protective characteristics as an island? The just as obvious answer is this: find an island.

Unsurprisingly, the USFWS had similar thoughts— they did exactly this in the years of 1978, 1989, and 1990, establishing three island propagation projects on Bull Island in South Carolina, Horn Island in Mississippi, and St. Vincent Island off the Gulf Coast of Florida. For years, these protected breeding populations hummed quietly and successfully along, producing new young wolves which were subsequently transferred to their intended permanent habitat at the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Despite their success, these island propagation programs have fallen by the wayside— the program on Horn Island was discontinued in 1998, due to too great a potential for interaction with humans, while the Bull Island program was shuttered in 2005, after producing a total of 26 wolf pups in 20 short years. The St. Vincent Island program still exists, but is not the boon it could be— it only claims one pair of wolves.

Was the USFWS right to conclude these programs? At the time, they likely appeared as overkill— an unnecessary expenditure of funds for a species that was already on its way back from extinction. Today, however, it’s clearly a different story. These Island Propagation Programs were successful once— why shouldn’t they be successful again? As the USFWS has repeatedly expressed in their announcements of the changes to the recovery program, the value of a strong wild population is invaluable to the Red Wolf’s recovery. If the current wild population at Alligator River is now too small and exposed to successfully repopulate the area, would the next intuitive move not be to reestablish Island Propagation sites like those successful in the past? Supplementing the difficult task of pup-fostering, wolf pups could be born and raised in these wild-yet-protected areas before being transferred to new introduction sites at Alligator River and beyond— already possessing the skills needed to survive there.

This is the first lesson that the Island Fox can teach us— the importance of an isolated and protected habitat for rehabilitation. This could be the first step in the clearly apparent need to secure the wild population of Red Wolves, while additional reintroduction sites are being considered and tested. Perhaps it’s time for the Island Propagation sites to be revived and reestablished, and used more seriously as a long-term scaffold for population growth.


Curing the Disease, Not the Symptoms

This concept of population strengthening and containment is not the only lesson that can be drawn from the story of the Island Fox— another, perhaps even more prominent distinction comes in the form of threat evaluation and elimination.

On Santa Cruz Island, federal agencies moved quickly to identify the primary threat facing Island Foxes: predation by invasive Golden Eagles. Following this identification, a series of steps were put in place to address the issue— non-native feral pigs were removed from the island to eliminate the primary food source of the Golden Eagles, the eagles themselves were captured and relocated, and Bald Eagles were reintroduced to the island to act as a natural deterrent to their Golden counterparts.

It may seem unnecessarily obvious to note the removal of threats as necessary to a species’ recovery, but the story of the Red Wolf seems to suggest otherwise. In North Carolina, the original threats which drove the wolves to near extinction still prosper unaddressed. Development and deforestation, of course, have only increased in modern times; interbreeding with coyotes has grown worse as Red Wolves are unable to find appropriate mates in a smaller population; and landowners still conflict regularly with the canids. Throughout the recovery program, the USFWS has been either unable or unwilling— depending on who you ask— to address these threats. If the Red Wolf is ever to have a legitimate chance at recovery, something must change.

In some of these areas, the USFWS has been active, if not completely successful. The program’s original designation of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was meant to provide the Red Wolf with ample protected habitat, free from the spread of development and the resulting conflict with our own species. But this habitat on its own is insufficient to the Red Wolf’s needs, as demonstrated by the USFWS’ original commitment to three distinct populations and worsening conflicts with landowners. In addition to strengthening this original range, additional areas must be considered for re-introduction sites within the state and beyond— areas which will provide a greater buffer between Red Wolves and human beings, and provide the species the room it needs to grow.

Similarly, the USFWS has previously tried to address the hybridization issue, implementing a coyote sterilization program in 1999, which in 2015 was recognized by multiple studies as encouragingly effective, with 37% of these placeholder coyotes eventually being displaced by Red Wolves in the program’s fifteen year history. The available data for this program, however, ends at the year 2015, and according to Defenders of Wildlife, the program has since been all but abandoned. What this means is that, should the Red Wolf ever be fortunate enough to return to its natural habitat, it will potentially face an even greater threat of hybridization— the same threat that has been its greatest historical adversary since the beginning of its decline.

Finally, the probability of gunshot death remains a serious threat to the recovery of the Red Wolf, and rather than addressing this as a form of predation against an endangered species, the USFWS has been surprisingly lenient in favor of landowners. In 2012, the state of North Carolina successfully lobbied to allow the night hunting of coyotes, a practice favored by landowners but opposed staunchly by conservationists, as distinguishing between a coyote and a Red Wolf is nearly impossible in the dark. The implications of this decision were clear— a report on Red Wolf mortality by the USFWS found that in the years of 2012-2015, gunshot accounted for 39% of Red Wolf deaths. In 2014, the combined efforts of conservation groups— including Defenders of Wildlife and the Red Wolf Coalition— took the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to court and successfully limited the hunting of coyotes to daylight hours. In 2015, after this change to the law, the number of Wolf deaths by gunshot dropped by 44%.

While this banning of night hunting stands as a clear victory for Red Wolf conservation, it is important to note that it came about because of pressure from private conservation organizations, not because of action on the part of the USFWS. On the contrary, there exists troubling evidence of the USFWS siding with landowners— as in 2015, when the USFWS issued one landowner a permit which allowed him to shoot and kill a Red Wolf on his property. Understandably, these actions have been seen as strictly contradictory to the stated duty of the USFWS to protect the Red Wolf. In the case of the Island Fox, this would be akin to the Park Service not removing and relocating the predatory Golden Eagles— but rather sharpening their talons for them.

In an examination of the major threats facing these two parallel species, a marked difference becomes evident in the actions of their overseeing agencies. In protecting the Island Fox, officials took direct steps to address the threat posed by Golden Eagles— at times these steps were even controversially rigorous, as many animal rights activists took issue with the exhaustive slaughtering of feral pigs on the island. In the case of the Red Wolf, the controversy has come from a lack of action.

In order for the Red Wolf to stand a legitimate chance of survival, swift action must be taken to address the direct threats facing its kind— multiple protected habitats must be established with sufficient range and supportive characteristics; the coyote sterilization program must be resumed and strengthened to counter interbreeding and hybridization upon the Red Wolf’s return to the wild; and new legislation must be enacted to protect Red Wolves from gunshot mortality. Without these actions, the Red Wolf— should sustainable numbers ever return to the wild— will face the same insurmountable odds which have led it to the brink of extinction in the past, and we will once again be forced to watch the species weaken, struggle, and die.


It Takes a Village

There exists a final lesson to be learned from the success of the Island Fox management program— that of interagency cooperation. In the case of efforts on Santa Cruz Island, it was The Nature Conservancy— a non-profit conservation organization— that used its own resources to establish an island-based captive breeding and monitoring program. In the removal and relocation of Golden Eagles, resources of The Nature Conservancy were combined with those of the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The cooperation between these three agencies ensured not only a wider scaffold of support, but also the promise of different perspectives and insights, all contributing to the end goal of the Fox’s recovery.

In the case of the Red Wolf, however, this sort of cooperative effort has been harder to achieve, and the practices of the USFWS have been challenged by a myriad of conservation organizations, including The Wildlands Network, the Endangered Species Coalition, the Red Wolf Coalition, the Animal Welfare Institute, and— most vocally— the Defenders of Wildlife, who in 2016 resigned from their official partnership with the Red Wolf Recovery Team in North Carolina, citing a lack of effort and intention on the part of the USFWS to achieve its goal. An independent assessment of the recovery program, requested by the USFWS and carried out by the non-profit Wildlife Management Institute, suggested that serious changes would be required for any chance of success, but few of these changes have yet to be adopted. And in 2015, the USFWS was faced with direct litigation by the Southern Environmental Law Center in response to the failing recovery program, and its complicity in the capture and killing of protected wolves.

Many of these conflicts in cooperation stem from state pressure pushing back against conservation efforts— the state of North Carolina and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission have for years been pushing for the declaration of the Red Wolf as extinct, and for its removal from the state itself. But contrary to the claims of the state, independent research has found strong evidence of public support for the Red Wolf— a 2016 poll by Tulchin Research found that 73% of North Carolina residents support the Red Wolf and all efforts for its recovery, and 76% believe the canid to play an important role in shaping the natural ecosystems of the state. Studies like these suggest that it is not the majority of citizens who favor the termination of the Red Wolf Management Program— only the most vocal. From the viewpoint of independent conservation organizations, the USFWS has repeatedly bowed to this small-but-vocal antagonism, and therefore abandoned its mission to save the Red Wolf.

In order to mount a serious, continuous effort to save the Red Wolf, unification is needed on several fronts. First, the USFWS must determine once and for all where its loyalties lie— with the dissenters or with the wolves— and then unequivocally display this stance in its actions. The conflict between the USFWS and independent conservation organizations stems largely from the perception that the USFWS bends too easily to the few vocal members of Red Wolf opposition, rather than standing firm in their stated mission. A clear reaffirmation of this mission by the USFWS would be a strong first step toward unification among the agencies committed to protecting the Red Wolf.

Next, this interagency cooperation must be demonstrated through tangible action: a collaborative effort to shift the Red Wolf’s public representation. Government agencies and independent conservation organizations must work together to correct erroneous assumptions about the Red Wolf, and paint the vulnerable species in a kinder and more scientifically accurate light. A perfect example of this educational cooperation was once apparent in the form of the Red Wolf Education Center in Tyrrell County, North Carolina— but the facility was closed in 2015 due to uncertainty surrounding the program’s future. Both the Red Wolf Coalition and Defenders of Wildlife hope to help the center reopen soon, but this will require the cooperation and support of the USFWS.

In tandem with this revival of community education, independent conservation organizations like Defenders of Wildlife must step forward (or be allowed to step forward) to take a more active role in the recovery of the species— free from the political pressure and budgetary restrictions of the USFWS, they might be capable of funneling the necessary resources into a project short on what it requires. Defenders of Wildlife, for example, have long discussed implementing landowner incentive programs similar to those undertaken out West— were these incentives to be fully launched and backed by the data of the USFWS and guided by the local knowledge of the Red Wolf Coalition, they may succeed in defusing much of the landowner tension.

Only when a greater level of cooperation is achieved by all parties called to aid in the recovery of the Red Wolves can we hope to see the same results as those enjoyed by their cousins of the Western coast.


Red Dawn

Both the Island Fox and the Red Wolf were pushed to the brink of extinction by humanity’s own actions— the Island Fox left prey to a new predator which we allowed, the Red Wolf exterminated out of fear and pushed to the edge of its remaining habitat by our own never-ending need to expand our own living space. Had these Foxes and Wolves been given a chance to exist unaffected by our presence, they would undoubtedly be flourishing today. The decimation of these species is due not to the will of natural selection, but to our own impact on an otherwise functioning ecosystem. Our resulting duty, then, is clear— if we were responsible for their destruction, we must also assume the responsibility for their rehabilitation.

The Island Fox is a success story of unbelievable proportions. Through carefully-designed action plans and coordinative efforts, conservationists managed to return the stolen future of these creatures. They now live contentedly in a restored ecosystem, unaware of how close they came to oblivion.

Though the case may seem bleak for the Red Wolf, in actuality they now face an opportunity for renewed recovery. As the Association for Zoos and Aquariums carries out the captive breeding program, new plans can be laid for resumed efforts at reintroduction, taking into account not only the lessons of the Red Wolf’s past, but the lessons of the Island Fox as well. These lessons are here for us to use— they’ve traveled across the continent to get here. Whether we make use of them or not, it will be the Red Wolf who feels the consequences.


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