While it has only begun to be spotted on Masonboro Island in recent years, the red fox has quickly made its presence known. Both sea turtles and some of the shorebirds that nest at Masonboro are protected species, and despite conservation efforts, their eggs are very susceptible to red fox predation.
Hope Sutton, southern sites manager for the North Carolina Coastal Reserve, reported that the first evidence of red foxes on Masonboro Island came around 2005. Since then, the sea turtle nest predation rate has risen from about zero in 2005 to more than 90 percent in 2010.
This past year saw a 58-percent predation rate, reduced in part due to mesh cages and other protective measures taken upon location of the nests. Sometimes, however, that’s not enough.
“They get to them even before our folks get to them, and our folks are there at six in the morning,” Sutton said.
Matthew Godfrey, sea turtle biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission, said the national recovery plan for loggerhead sea turtles recommends some kind of control for predators when predation levels are above 10 percent.
Experts say the red fox isn’t supposed to be there, or even on this continent. The red fox was introduced to North America by colonial settlers as a game animal because the native grey fox, which tends to climb trees, wasn’t nearly as fun to hunt on horseback. Once it was introduced, it flourished due to its ability to live side by side with humans, in particular, its ability to get into trash cans. This allowed the red fox population to swell far past levels it could reach on natural resources alone.
“Given the fact that you’re trying to balance a non-native species, and a listed species that … if we aren’t going out of our way to help could start to head into extinction, you get in the difficult position of deciding the you must remove one species to save another,” Sutton said.
Unfortunately for the red fox, removal means destruction. Katharine Womble, park ranger at Fort Fisher, said state law prohibits the relocation of animals that are carriers for rabies, and the red fox is one of those animals.
Womble said that Fort Fisher has been in talks with predator removal services, but has yet to secure the funding to bring in professionals. Current protocol for park rangers at Fort Fisher is to shoot red foxes on sight if it can be done safely; however, Womble said that it’s very rare that park rangers find themselves in a situation safe enough to pull the trigger.
Sutton has managed to secure a small pot of money from sea turtle conservation funds to begin a red fox removal program, with the ultimate goal being total elimination of the red fox from Masonboro Island. The details of the program have not yet been worked out, but Sutton said they will be using the United States Department of Agriculture’s predator removal service.
One of the biggest unanswered questions about the red fox at Masonboro is how it got there. Except for the southernmost tip of the island, Masonboro is a very far swim from the mainland for a fox.
Sutton hopes the speed in which the species repopulates itself on the island after removal action is taken will help answer the question. If the population restores itself quickly, it may be evidence that foxes are swimming the distance.