Monday, July 27, 2009


Red fox photo by Phares Book.

How could two fox species be so different?

This is a tale of two foxes, one that thrives alongside humanity and one that was almost lost forever--and now needs human help to rebound.

The red fox is no doubt familiar to most Idahoans. You are quite likely to see it trotting across a farm field, hunting along the Boise Greenbelt or just strolling around dowtown Ketchum.

The red fox's former world is one inhabited by all manner of fearsome predators--wolves and bears, lions and cheetahs. To survive, it had to eke out a living in the shadows, eating what it could and surviving by eluding--out-foxing, if you will--the larger carnivores.

Such habits have served the red fox well in the human-dominated world. Its unfinicky eating habits--berries or mice or chickens or unattended dog food or roadkill--and sneaky habits allow it to thrive alongside humans. Farms, suburbs and city parks are much better suited to a red fox than the most pristine wilderness.

Today, the red fox is the world's most widely distributed carnivore. In some environments, it got there due to deliberate (and ill-considered) introductions by people, as is the case in Australia.

In Idaho, evidence exists that the red fox lived the most precarious existences in pre-Columbian times. But it quickly colonized the state as larger predators were eliminated.
The Santa Cruz island fox, on the other hand, was always the largest predator in its environment. Granted, this fox is the size of a small house cat, but in the Channel Islands off the coast of California--where it evolved--it is top dog.

Or was.

People released sheep and pigs on the island, which became feral. These in turn attracted golden eagles, which began hunting foxes in addition to feral livestock.

The island fox did not flee from the eagles, as it had never dealt with aerial predators before. It had not dealt with any predators before.

Unlike the red fox, the island fox was not very sneaky, or adaptable, as it had no need to be either of these things. As such, its population on Santa Cruz plummeted from 1500 to less than 100 in less than a decade.

The island fox is rebounding. But unlike the red fox, this success requires pretty intensive human efforts. Feral pigs and sheep have been eliminated, golden eagles relocated to the mainland and captive breeding efforts instituted for the fox. Read more about The Nature Conservancy's efforts to conserve the fox.

And so it is many species in our world. Some--the red fox and whitetail deer, the gray squirrel and feral hogs--will thrive in new habitats, in farm fields and suburbia. But do we want these to be the only species?

As with the island fox, many other species can coexist in our world; we just need the will and focus to preserve them. --Matt Miller

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