L ast summer, I set off on an expedition to the northernmost of the Channel Islands, San Miguel to help collect biological data on Island foxes. The information gathered was used by the Integrated Island Fox Recovery Team to get an accurate estimate of how many foxes are on the island, and help make informed observations about how well the whole population is surviving.
The study was physically arduous. Just getting to the traps took almost half an hour of hard hiking, and the traps themselves were set 250 meters apart, requiring a minimum hike of five miles each day through tough terrain. Each morning we rose before the sun and hiked to our trapping grid by the dawn light. Each of our 18 traps needed to be checked and reset, and most foxes that were caught needed a full medical examination.
The National Park Service(NPS) employees were excellent instructors, and they taught me the best methods to collect information in the field. For the fox exams, I learned how to restrain the animals safely, determine their age by the state of their teeth, take samples of blood and whiskers for testing, vaccinate them, implant a microchip, give them a radio tracking collar, and record the information, all within a 12 minute time-span to minimize stress for the fox!
”Even though I am used to working with these foxes every day at our Zoo, it is incredible to see them in the wild.
Besides the fox exams, our tasks included radio telemetry (listening for the radio “ping” of each fox, all over the island), entering the data into the computer for analysis, and updating the logs and equipment with our new fox information. After a week of trekking and trapping, our last task was to bring in all 18 of the traps. To do this, we had to hike back up and over the sandy, dune-like crest of the island with a frame backpack with traps and gear weighing 90 lbs.! That was a walk I won’t soon forget! We managed to catch and record data from 19 foxes, all in all a very successful week.
Even though I am used to working with these foxes every day at our Zoo, it is incredible to see them in the wild. Although four subspecies of the island fox still remain federally endangered, it is through continuing efforts from organizations like the Santa Barbara Zoo and the NPS that they have started to recover.
Recovery for this species indicates that their population numbers have returned to healthy, pre-decline levels and that the threats identified during the decline have been reduced. The Channel Island fox recovery is one of the great successes of conservation study and education, and I am extremely proud to have been able to participate.