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To Save an Endangered Fox, Humans Turned Its Home Into a War Zone

Christina Boser sits at the edge of a eucalyptus grove cradling an impossible creature. It’s smaller and slimmer than your average housecat, with tiny paws and a pointed snout. Its coat is subtly speckled black and white, like TV static, turning rusty around the animal’s ears and belly and fluffy tail.

Grasping it by the neck, Boser pulls a blindfold over the creature’s snout and eyes, then runs a comb along its back and sides. There, a flea. Another swipe and two more fleas. She grabs a syringe, feels around her patient’s rear leg for a good muscle, and injects a distemper vaccine. Then she flips the animal over, feels around, and injects again, this time for rabies.

Boser undoes the blindfold’s velcro and looks the creature in its eyes. “Hi,” she says, rubbing its leg with her thumb. It doesn’t flinch, and it doesn’t grumble. When Boser loosens her grip, the critter rockets away, stopping 30 feet down a dirt road to look back before disappearing around the grove.

So goes the island fox, an achingly beautiful creature that lives here on Santa Cruz Island (and a handful of other Channel Islands), off the coast of Southern California. Just 12 years ago, fewer than 100 foxes remained on Santa Cruz, driven toward extinction by voracious golden eagles who’d incidentally pick off the foxes while hunting the island’s feral pigs. Now, thanks to Boser and her colleagues at the Nature Conservancy, the island fox numbers over 2,000. On August 11, the Environmental Protection Agency pulled the island fox from the Endangered Species List—the fastest turnaround ever for an endangered mammal.

Conservationists were only able to save the fox by turning its home into a war zone, complete with snipers and helicopters. This, after all, is the anthropocene. Humans have mucked up nearly every ecosystem they’ve touched—and people like Boser desperately want to put those ecosystems back together again. But that restoration comes at enormous monetary and biological cost.

Resetting something as wildly complex as an ecosystem is an intricate balance of subjective ethics and scientific calculations. As humanity inflicts more and more harm on the ecosystems of Earth, conservationists have developed increasingly sophisticated ways of saving imperiled species. Santa Cruz Island is just one battleground in a larger war, as humans grapple with the threat of invaders—including themselves.