The hunt is on. Monday, Feb. 4, marked the first day of efforts
to remove the red fox from Masonboro Island, where they have become a nuisance to recovery plans for several endangered species.
“They’re non-native and they’re predating on native endangered species,” Michele Walker, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said on Monday, Feb. 4. “It’s a choice that we have to make but we feel like we’re making the correct choice in this situation.”
The national recovery plan for loggerhead sea turtles, which frequently nest on Masonboro Island, recommends some sort of predator removal when nests show a predation rate above 10 percent. Because signs of red fox presence first began to surface on Masonboro in 2005, predation rates on sea turtle nests have risen to as high as 90 percent in 2010. Last year, 58 percent of sea turtle nests showed some evidence of predation.
“This is not something that hasn’t been given a lot of thought,” said Andy Wood, director of Coastal Plains Conservation Group. “Estuarine research reserve programs, the Fish and Wildlife Commission and others have wrestled with this for a long time.”
Wood added that the red fox is currently living predator-free on Masonboro Island, and that if its population is allowed to grow, eventually nature will step in, possibly creating a more dangerous situation.
“We’ve seen it in raccoon populations before,” Wood said. “When a species builds up to a level that’s just not sustainable by the environment they’re in, some stress takes them out. It can be rabies, it can be distemper, it could be parasitic worms.”
Rabies is also the reason the red foxes can’t be relocated. It is illegal to relocate carriers of rabies.
Removal efforts will be conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture’s professional predator removal services, and will run for a total of two weeks. The first week is already underway, and the timing of the second will depend on the results of the first.
“Foxes can actually get shy to traps,” said Hope Sutton, southern sites manager for the North Carolina Coastal Reserve. “If the trappers feel like that’s happening, they’ll take a break and come back, but if all goes well they’ll come back next week.”
The first phase of the removal process uses foothold traps, strategically placed in areas showing evidence of red fox activity.
Sutton said they took pains to make the process as safe to humans as possible. She said removal services chose winter to begin its efforts because that’s when human visitation to Masonboro Island is at its lowest, the traps would be placed with great care to avoid areas where people frequently walk, and signs have been posted advising visitors to stay to “regularly trafficked areas, existing trails and along the beachfront.” She also recommends visitors to the island keep pets on a leash.
If the foothold traps prove ineffective, predator removal services are authorized to hunt the foxes.
“It’s a very fluid process,” Sutton said. “It all depends on response and signs of fox activity.”
There is still some question as to how many red foxes are actually living on Masonboro Island.
“We’ve surveyed for fox dens for several years,” Sutton said. “But there’s not a really solid rule of thumb, as far as the number of dens you see and the number of foxes there. … There’s been nobody that I’ve talked to that’s been willing to throw a number out there and stand behind it.”
Samples taken from foxes collected during the removal process will be used to inform two research projects dealing with red foxes.