Endangered Catalina Island foxes, on the rebound, face a new enemy: Us

A sign warning drivers to watch for foxes, which are expanding into more populated parts of Catalina Island. Catalina Island Conservancy

The rebound of the Catalina Island fox population is a conservation success story, for sure: Nearly wiped out in the late 1990s, in part due to a virus, they have recovered over the last decade.

But now these pointy eared animals are facing a new threat: humans.

Last year, 21 foxes were reportedly killed by vehicles. That's a sharp increase from the year before, when only 12 were killed by cars. In 2012, only eight foxes were known to have died this way.

In addition, last year two foxes died from drowning in uncovered water containers; one was attacked by an unleashed dog; and another was killed by eating rat poison.

"With more foxes, you now have them getting into the urban, wildland interface," said Julie King with the Catalina Island Conservancy.

She said these deaths are likely an unhappy consequence of the fox rebound.

As the population grows, the foxes are leaving the more remote parts of the island and heading towards cities like Avalon, with a population of nearly 4,000.

King added that the drought might also be playing a role in the foxes' migration. Normally these animals eat plants, insects and other small animals. But the drought may have made much of this food scarce.

As a consequence, King speculated, the animals have turned to trash cans to supplement their diets: "So they're probably just that much more driven to go to these trash cans and get a free handout." 

Indeed, many of the deaths from 2014 were on roads near trash cans. King believes the Island foxes have been crossing roads more often to eat scraps left in the bins.

To help combat this, the Catalina Island Conservancy is raising money to purchase 150 new fox-proof trash cans at a cost of $2,000 each.

"They stop at nothing to get to food and trash cans, so you have to have them completely wildlife proof."

This is just the latest saga in a long story of the foxes impressive recovery.

Their numbers plummeted from about 1,300 to roughly 100 by 1999 after an outbreak of canine distemper virus ravaged the species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a conservation program around that time, and slowly the creatures recovered to pre-crash numbers. Today there are about 1,700 animals on the island.

While the increase in fox deaths is alarming, King said the uptick in deaths does not pose a threat to the species at the moment.