SEALs vs. Foxes: U.S. Military Treads Lightly Among Threatened Wildlife
At the military base on California’s San Clemente Island, recruits embark on a grueling journey. Their training will include ship-to-shore and air-to-ground bombardment as well as underwater assault combat, all part of an unrelenting program that will forge them into elite Marines and Navy SEALs. At the beginning of their stay, they meet a battle-hardened San Clemente veteran known only as Wayne. Wild and fearless, his presence serves as a dire warning to the new island-dwellers: keep a sharp eye out for the locals. And look how cute they are!
Wayne is a San Clemente Island Fox rescued by Navy biologists. He is one of an estimated population of 1,100 foxes native to the 22 mile-long island, which lies approximately 70 miles off the coast near San Diego. The gray, rust-streaked foxes are San Clemente’s largest mammal, averaging 3 to 4 pounds when fully grown, and the island’s only native predator. Though their numbers have increased dramatically over the past decade, the species is still considered threatened. This has worried biologists, activists, and military personnel alike. If the fox population ever shrinks enough to become endangered, military activity on the island could be halted.
The problem is that the foxes don’t fear humans, even Navy SEALs. The nocturnal creatures frequently scrounge around the base and its training areas looking for food, which is plentiful on the island thanks to this past year’s heavy rainfall. Unfortunately, their lack of fear for humans also means that the foxes are unaware of the dangers posed by cars and other vehicles. They are hit all too often.
Last year, 65 foxes were reportedly killed crossing the roads. In an effort to curb this, signs reading “WATCH OUT FOR FOXES” and “SLOW FOXES” caution drivers throughout San Clemente. Tall grasses along the roadside are mown down to make the bushy-tailed jaywalkers more visible. Military personnel, including the base’s top Navy Commander, often stop to shoo the stubborn animals from their path. The foxes have also been known to hide under parked vehicles.
Other regulations to protect the foxes include a ban on pets. Officials are concerned that an outbreak of distemper or rabies could wipe out the population, as it has on other islands; the Navy has hired the Institute for Wildlife Studies to prepare a 100-page epidemic contingency plan. The island remains home to feral descendants of cats brought to San Clemente long before any fox protections were enacted, as well as a firehouse dog.
The Institute for Wildlife Studies also runs a veterinary hospital specifically for the foxes, and personnel are given three phone numbers–a kind of vulpine 911 hotline–to call in the event of an accident. Together with the Navy’s wildlife biologists, they brief military newcomers and visitors on fox protocol. This includes rules against feeding the foxes or leaving open dumpsters and trash that might attract them.
This is also where Wayne comes in. Nearly killed by an older male fox when he was young, Wayne missed several key developmental phases during his recovery and cannot survive in the wild. He lives at the Institute’s fox center, where he is brought out during the wildlife briefings. Wayne makes the briefings more memorable by putting an adorable face on the issue. After seeing Wayne, that “battle-hardened San Clemented veteran,” the servicemen and women will hopefully learn a new kind of vigilance. Vigilance that’s fox-friendly.
Photo credit: Don DeBold (donjd2)