Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Gimme Shelter

Many Mammals at Risk of Extinction

A report out this week finds almost one in four of the Earth’s mammals are in danger of extinction. The study was conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an organization of governments, NGOs and scientists.

Julia Marton-Lefevre, Director General of IUCN says, “Within our lifetime hundreds of species could be lost as a result of our actions….”

IUCN says forty percent of the planet’s mammals are struggling to survive in smaller and degraded habitats.

In California, we have a lot of animal species that don’t live anywhere else … and many of them are also on the edge of extinction. That includes sea otters, red-legged frogs, desert tortoises, San Joaquin kit foxes, peninsular big horn sheep, southern steelhead trout … to name a few. And it includes an animal beloved by visitors to the Channel Islands. Here's my report.

SETZIOL: On a crisp winter afternoon, biologist Mitchell Dennis and colleagues with the National Park Service hop on an eight-seat plane headed for San Miguel Island … home to one of the world’s rarest animals … :

(sound of plane putting down runway)
DENNIS: We have a release going on today. We’ve caught them this morning in their pens and we’re going to fly across the island and release them.
SETZIOL: so these animals aren’t found anywhere else in the world?
DENNIS: No. Nowhere else…

(plane in air)

SETZIOL: As we leave the Ventura coast, we see the four northern Channel Islands rising out of the sea … blue-black, and backlit by a swath of sunlit sea, shimmering platinum and gold. San Miguel looms on the horizon, ringed by fog.

(sound of plane bumping down)

SETZIOL: When we get to Miguel …

(sound of plane bumping down)

SETZIOL: We pick up additional passengers: four little foxes, each about the size of a house cat. They’ve been part of a captive breeding program trying to keep Island Foxes from going extinct.
(location sound of)
SETZIOL: So they look a bit like the mainland grey fox.
DENNIS: they do, they’re about 40% smaller

SETZIOL: The tawny and gray foxes are curled up in portable kennels. They’re silent and motionless, but their eyes are wide open and alert. The biologists put on them on the plane for a short flight to the other side of the island.

(plane sound underneath, then fading out)

SETZIOL: Island foxes live on six of the Channel Islands. Each island has a genetically distinct subspecies of the dainty fox. Ten years ago, the foxes on the northern Channel Islands began to die off rapidly.

The problem??? Feral pigs left over from ranching days attracted golden eagles to Santa Cruz Island. The eagles feasted on an abundant supply of piglets, and evidently found the foxes to be a satisfactory hors d’oeuvre. And the foxes were sitting ducks, so to speak, because they weren’t accustomed to being preyed upon. Biologist Rosie Woodroffe is one of a team of scientists advising the park service on fox recovery.

WOODROFFE: Most animals active in the day are constantly looking for predators, looking up. Foxes are not that vigilant because they spent thousands of years not needing to be vigilant. When you’ve got an animal with no anti-predator behavior at all-there’s very little you can do to convince them to look up!

SETZIOL: On the northwest side of San Miguel Island, the biologists unload the foxes. Then Mitchell Dennis and Debbie Watson listen to beeps transmitted from radio collars around their necks.

(sound of beeping)

DENNIS: that’s the mortality mode on her collar.
WATSON: It’s not supposed to do that.
DENNIS: Shake the collar, but you really can’t shake the fox, though.

SETZIOL: They decide to replace the broken collar.

DENNIS: Hi, sweetie.
WATSON: I’ve got a bandanna
DENNIS: Calms them down to have a bandanna over their face.

SETZIOL: Dennis says the Park Service has been capturing and relocating golden eagles … and it’s hired hunters to kill the feral pigs. So it’s safe enough to put some foxes back into the wild.

DENNIS: And they just do better in the wild. We had 4 females and 6 males released last year, and those 4 females produced at least 9 pups. All of our captive pens where we had 40 to 50 foxes, but we only had 8 pups between all of them.

SETZIOL: But a few--maybe 4--eagles have evaded capture and are still snacking on foxes. Last year, they killed 11. Biologist Rosie Woodroffe.

WOODROFFE: It’s true golden eagles haven’t been seen on San Miguel, but they have in the last few months killed at least one fox on Santa Rosa Island, which is a stone’s throw away. And it only takes one eagle to decide to fly over to San Miguel for a few days and they could take out the whole released population on San Miguel. It’s still on a knife edge whether the foxes will survive in the wild.

SETZIOL: Woodroffe says the park service should at least consider killing some eagles if they continue to evade capture and feed on foxes. But it’s not clear if killing the birds would be easier or cheaper, and it would certainly spark outrage from animal rights groups.

So to ensure the survival of the species, some foxes will remain in captivity. This year, the biologists will let them choose their mates, instead of pairing them by their genetics.

(sound of kennel opening)
WATSON: Ready?
DENNIS: yep.

SETZIOL: With all the collars working, Debbie Watson and Mitchell Dennis, open the kennels. And the captive-born foxes take their first steps into the wild.

WATSON: He’s heading off towards point Bennett!
SETZIOL: running!
DENNIS: Furthest he’s ever run in a straight line. (laughing)

SETZIOL: Three of the foxes bound out of sight. But a young female ventures only a few feet, then hunkers down in the grass looking a bit stunned … and uncertain.

From Channel Islands National Park, Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC.

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