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Foxes are latest threat to sea turtle population, nesting shorebirds

June 11, 1008
Star News Online — North Carolina

By Gareth McGrath

Even though this sea turtle nest on Bald Head Island is covered, it has been dug out by a fox. Officials up and down the coast are struggling with what to do about foxes.

Fort Fisher — Kneeling next to a wire–mesh box turned upside down, Jeff Owen pushed back the sand to show the box’s sides extending into the beach and the flaps protruding several feet.

Installed over the top of a buried sea turtle nest, the exclusion device looked like a pretty good deterrent.

But Owen, superintendent for the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, just shook his head when asked how effective the cages are in keeping the local red foxes out of the nests.

"They pick up things real fast," Owen said. "It didn’t take them long to figure this stuff out."

Officials up and down the coast are struggling with what to do about foxes that have developed a hankering for sea turtle eggs.

Adding to their concern is the precipitous decline in the nesting population of the northern loggerhead, the predominant sea turtle found in North Carolina waters.

Last year North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida all saw loggerhead nesting numbers more than 30 percent lower than those in 2006. Smaller declines also had been observed in previous years.

That’s prompted several environmental groups to petition the federal government to declare the northern population of the loggerhead a separate species and give it "endangered" status under the Endangered Species Act.

But sea turtles aren’t the only creatures feeling the fox’s bite.

Last year, not a single shorebird nested successfully on Masonboro Island, where half the turtle nests were raided.

"We’re assuming most of that impact came from foxes," said Hope Sutton, southern sites manager for the N.C. Division of Coastal Management.

The drop in turtle and nesting shorebird numbers comes just as the coast’s fox population is increasing, apparently fueled by its ability to feel perfectly at home among humans.

Because the red fox is a non–native species, brought to coastal North Carolina by British settlers centuries ago as a game animal, eradication of nuisance animals is supported by some officials and environmentalists as a reasonable solution.

But that support hasn’t carried over into the general public – yet.

A proposal by Caswell Beach to use lethal means, probably sharpshooters, to control its fox problem prompted a strong reaction from residents.

"It’s an emotional issue on both sides," said Mayor Harry Simmons.

But non–lethal control methods are either expensive, problematic or largely ineffective.

One of the reasons is that the fox, while cute and a mainstay of children’s fairy tales, can carry diseases such as rabies and distemper, making relocation illegal under state law.

They also are sly adversaries that learn quickly, making capture difficult.

On Bald Head Island, officials are trying to educate the public about the dangers of feeding foxes and leaving trash in accessible locations.

Suzanne Dorsey, executive director of the Bald Head Island Conservancy, said foxes begging for food are easily spotted along some of the Brunswick County island’s main drags.

That leads the animals to connect food to humans and to be drawn to where they are, including the beach. It doesn’t take long for the foxes to then find the birds and the turtle nests.

Last year almost 40 percent of the island’s turtle nests were hit by foxes.

This summer, Dorsey said, the conservancy intends to discuss a range of options for dealing with the problem to see which one the community supports.

Fort Fisher, where foxes dug into half of last year’s 17 turtle nests, is also taking measures to try and keep the predators from getting on the beach in the first place.

Rangers have removed trash cans from the beach, centralizing garbage disposal at the main gate, to try to discourage foxes from the oceanfront. Feeding the animals also is actively discouraged.

But officials fear the foxes that have territories along the beach are passing on the trait to their kits, creating another generation of nest hunters.

Just north of the recreation area’s parking lot, Owen pointed to a series of well–maintained holes in the ground that signified an active fox den.

Nearby was a post where a camera had been attached and between the two was an improved exclusion cage with tougher wire and deeper slats.

Owen said the exclusion device, part of an Eagle Scout project, was being tested to see if it is more fox–proof.

If history was any guide, though, the foxes would soon learn just to channel a little deeper to get at the protein–rich turtle eggs, he said.

Todd Menke, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said most communities generally start with non–lethal measures when trying to deal with nuisance animals.

"But it usually boils down to the fact that once you have an animal with this learned behavior, you’re going to continue to have predation until that animal is removed," he said.