• Recovery Artist

    The Santa Cruz Island fox is on the rebound, thanks to one scientist.
    By Brendan Borrell
    Photographs by Ian Shive
 

L

otus Vermeer downshifts into first,

and the brown Landcruiser lurches up another steep dirt track on Santa Cruz Island, on a Nature Conservancy preserve three times the size of Manhattan off the coast of Southern California.

After seven years navigating the island’s accordion-fold topography as director of the Conservancy’s work on Santa Cruz, Vermeer has earned solid four-wheel-drive credentials. But her petite frame means she often has to lean out the side of the doorless truck to see the road in front of the hood.

It’s during one of these maneuvers that she spots a speckled gray-and-orange ball of fur lounging in the road. She slams on the brakes. With its short snout, squat legs and feather-duster tail, the endangered Santa Cruz Island fox looks more like a plush toy than a svelte carnivore. The fox, which is half the size of a house cat and a quarter the size of its mainland canine relatives, gazes at the truck a moment before loping off into a stand of sagebrush.

“You just saw the top predator on the island,” Vermeer says with a grin. “Pretty ferocious.”

In truth, the island fox spends as much time chomping on the berries from the island’s manzanita trees as it does stalking field mice and endemic island fence lizards. What’s remarkable about seeing one on a road in a remote part of the island is that such sightings have become typical. By the end of the day Vermeer and her crew have spotted four of the diminutive foxes, one dashing under a lemonade berry bush, others lazing back on their haunches in the rosy sunlight.

In 2004, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the fox as an endangered species, fewer than 100 remained. Their evolutionary story likely began when a pair of errant gray foxes somehow rafted across the 20-mile ocean channel from the California mainland around 15,000 years ago. They coexisted with the Chumash Indians and the island’s last remaining pygmy mammoths, whose fossils are still lodged in the soils.

Only in the past 150 years did the ecological insults begin to pile up. Ranchers brought sheep and pigs, which denuded the island of much of its native vegetation. By the 1960s, a legacy of DDT disposal in the waters south of Los Angeles wiped out resident bald eagles. The DDT accumulated in the tissues of the fish and carrion the eagles fed on, weakening their eggshells so that the eggs were easily crushed. With the territorial bald eagles out of the way, golden eagles moved into the island’s cliffside perches in the 1990s, lured by a steady diet of feral pigs.

The foxes, unaccustomed to aerial threats, quickly became a favorite target for the golden eagles. If immediate action was not taken, biologists expected the fox would be extinct in a matter of years.

Vermeer’s introduction to Santa Cruz, in Autumn 2003, was a face full of salt spray as one wave and then another crested over her kayak. She had just taken the job to run the Conservancy’s program on the island and had joined her new boss for a three-day kayak trip around it. The highlight, when the weather finally calmed, was an excursion into a mile-long sea cave—the world’s longest—that ended with the resounding roar of California sea lions deep in the pitch-black cavern.

Vermeer, who grew up on Vancouver Island in Canada, had expected her career path to take her to the calm waters of the eastern Caribbean, where she had studied vervet monkeys, sea turtles and sea grasses for her Ph.D. in biology. Instead, she found herself in rough waters—in more ways than one.
A controversy was brewing over the future of Santa Cruz.

The island’s native ecology was crashing. The fox and a dozen other species unique to Santa Cruz and its neighboring islands were on the verge of extinction.

The decision was made to round up 10 pairs of the remaining foxes for a captive breeding program. The Conservancy and the National Park Service, which owns the eastern quarter of the island, began a multimillion-dollar effort to restore ecological balance. The plan was to capture and relocate the golden eagles, re-establish bald eagles and set them free on the island, and eradicate the non-native feral pigs, which had nearly devoured the island’s rare and endangered native plants.

Success was never a foregone conclusion. Conservationists and land managers faced not only the logistical challenges of working on an undeveloped island, but also local conflict over parts of their plan. Because the island’s feral pigs were potential hosts to cholera and other diseases, they could not be captured and moved to the mainland and would have to be killed in place—a tactic that makes even the most dedicated restoration ecologist cringe. “There’s nothing pleasant about having to kill animals,” Vermeer says. In 2005, she had to explain to communities, courtroom judges and activists back on the mainland why killing pigs was the only option to bring the island back to life again.

Despite the difficulties, the restoration has moved ahead at a record pace. By 2006, the first bald eagle chick in more than 50 years had hatched on the island. That same year, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert claimed a captive-born chick released on Santa Cruz as his own son, Stephen Jr., and complained furiously when it departed for Canada.

With the threat of golden eagles diminished, the foxes have bounced back. At last count, Conservancy scientists estimated that more than 1,200 foxes live on the island, and Vermeer is waiting to see whether this year the population returns to its historical size of 1,500. “I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see foxes running across the trails in such a short time,” Vermeer says.

And it is not just the animals that are recovering. When Vermeer and her counterpart at the National Park Service, Kate Faulkner, hiked up the chalky slopes of Ragged Peak a couple of years ago, they were stunned by the changes. The peak was notable for having been the nesting spot of the last golden eagle, and it was a moonscape in the 1980s, when sheep still grazed its slopes. Vermeer and Faulkner had been expecting to climb bare rock but were pleased to see that some new pines had crept up the ridge. As they hiked, they could hardly fathom the proliferation of plants. Two Channel Island endemic plants, rosette-shaped succulents called Dudleya and Santa Cruz Island buckwheat, were already dotting the ground. Some of the dry mountain flanks now sported a promising new coat of native grasses. “I never imagined bunchgrass would make me so happy,” Vermeer says.
Coleen Cory, a Conservancy plant ecologist working on Vermeer’s team, produced a vegetation map revealing how the island’s native sage scrub and pine and oak forests have replaced non-native grasslands. In 2007, Cory helped create a weed map of 55 of the 170 exotic species on the island and then had a panel of experts determine which were the most harmful and also had the potential to be eliminated. Ultimately, 18 species, including pampas grass, Peruvian pepper tree and other woody invasives, were targeted for eradication and treated over a two-year period. Eliminating the invasives allowed native vegetation to recover.

The recovery of vegetation is also helping the island scrub-jay, which is found only on Santa Cruz. Many visitors are surprised to learn that the jay has not expanded its range to other Channel Islands, but Katie Langin, a graduate student from Colorado State University who is studying the birds, says that some evidence shows that even neighboring populations could be genetically distinct.

“They are just terrible fliers,” says Langin. The jays mostly hop through the sage brush, feeding on acorns and pine seeds.

Because they stash thousands of acorns, only a fraction of which they later recover, the birds have been a boon to restoration.

Perhaps the only vexing change on Santa Cruz Island is that Lyndal Laughrin has to keep a close eye on his socks. Laughrin is the manager of the University of California’s field station, where he has worked since 1965, when he began his doctoral research on the island fox. The mischievous pups are particularly fond of stinky hiking socks, Laughrin says.

“Usually they only take the left one,” he says.

Vermeer laughs. “I think they’re just messing with us,” she says.

Late in the afternoon, Vermeer climbs into a truck and drives down a shady canyon with steep walls and puddles of tea-colored water. As the canyon opens up to a broad, gravelly riverbed, she stops the truck and gets out to point at another plant.

The endemic Santa Cruz Island silver lotus, a delicate plant with fuzzy leaves and yellow flowers, is finally bouncing back.

“The stakes are often very high on islands,” says Vermeer. “You are faced with the potential to lose species forever—but you also have the potential to reverse decades of ecological damage.”

March 2011

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Fox survival 60x60 See the Recovery Artist in his native habitat.

"The stakes are often very high on islands. You are faced with the potential to lose species forever—but you also have the potential to reverse decades of ecological damage."

Lotus Vermeer, director of the Conservancy’s work on Santa Cruz Island