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Video: One of North America's rarest mammals makes record recovery

Just 12 years ago, a species of fox native to California had a 50 per cent chance of survival. Today, they are fully recovered.

Captive breeding and a robust vaccination program have helped save a species of island fox native to California from the brink of extinction.

U.S. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

Captive breeding and a robust vaccination program have helped save a species of island fox native to California from the brink of extinction.

Amid endlessly tumbling heat records and alarm bells ringing on behalf of threatened species, we find a little slice of good environmental news.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has removed an island fox species unique to California from its list of endangered species, a mere 12 years after it was added to the list with a 50 per cent chance of extinction within the next decade.

It’s the quickest recovery ever for a U.S. mammal that has been classified as endangered, and a large part of the credit goes to an “unprecedented” captive breeding program.

“The island fox recovery is an incredible success story about the ability to correct course for a species on the brink of extinction,” said U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a release.

The foxes, which are native to California’s Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Cruz islands, were initially added to the list after they suffered a devastating 90 per cent population decline in the late 1990s. Topping out at the size of a typical tabby cat, the foxes are among the smallest canids in the world.

The carnage that wreaked on their population was traced to the use of pesticides that eradicated the bald eagles that shared the islands.

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With those eagles and their fish-heavy diets out of the way, their space in the trees was filled by golden eagles, which preyed heavily on foxes that had become quite accustomed to a predator-free life on their island homes.

While the eagles were feasting, a distemper virus swept through the surviving foxes, causing their numbers to plummet spectacularly. Santa Rosa, which was once home to nearly 1,800 foxes, was home to only 15 of them at the their lowest point.

After the foxes were listed in 2004, several organizations partnered on a captive breeding and vaccination program to bolster the struggling population.

“The decline of the island fox, one of America’s rarest mammals, was rapid and severe,” said National Parks Service Director Jon Jarvis. “Captive rearing, an unprecedented emergency action, was critical to saving the population.”

Results were swift and today the populations on the three islands are considered to have fully recovered.

A separate population on neighbouring Santa Catalina Island has been upgraded to threatened, though they still face some risk from distemper.

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