While Catalina Island’s bison may be the island’s largest mammal, they are not the island’s largest native mammal. Brought here in the 1920s, bison were introduced to Catalina by filmmakers. Catalina’s largest native mammal is only about five pounds and is smaller than most housecats. It is the Catalina Island fox.
The Catalina Island fox, a subspecies of the grey fox found on the mainland, exists nowhere else on earth. This diminutive canine, known for its curious attitude and omnivorous diet, was almost completely wiped out by canine distemper a decade ago. Wildlife biologists and concerned locals alike watched with alarm as fox numbers plummeted.
In 1999, with fox numbers hovering around 100, biologists with the Catalina Island Conservancy and Institute for Wildlife Studies launched an aggressive captive breeding program. Luckily the foxes cooperated. In a few years the captive breeding program was successful enough to release all of the foxes in the program. Today, more than 1,500 foxes roam the interior and their recovery is widely lauded as a success in bringing a species back from the brink of near extinction.
The Catalina Island fox remains listed as an endangered species by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. There are several ways to possibly get a glimpse at Catalina’s largest mammal. A short hike in the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden at the end of Avalon Canyon Road sometimes reveals a fox or two. And, the Garden to Sky hike (accessed through the garden) has been claimed by a couple of foxes. Foxes are most active at dawn and dusk but can often be seen, watching you from under Catalina’s chaparral. While they are seldom seen in town, they are often spotted at the outskirts of town.