Paradox of the Arctic Fox

By Sims, Grant | National Wildlife, February-March 1996 | Go to article overview

Paradox of the Arctic Fox


Sims, Grant, National Wildlife


This cunning animal's appetites are a powerful force in Far North ecosystems. And once human beings get into the act, the fragility of those ecosystems becomes all too clear.

Out on the flower-spangled tundra, the fox hesitated; and in the indecision of that raised forepaw, researcher Alice Stickney felt that she could read the small predator's thought: Two eggs, one mouth; there must be a way!

It was an arctic fox - a male Alopex lagopus. By November, he would skitter across the polar ice like a ball of pure white fluff. But now, in his brown-blotched summer coat, he looked rangy - even haggard. And with those circles of dark fur under his eyes, he appeared to Stickney more the villain in character with what he was doing: stealing eggs from wild sea goose nests on Alaska's Yukon River Delta. "His problem," the biologist recalls, "was that he had stolen one black brant egg and was trotting off to cache it somewhere, when he passed a second egg. He paused, moved on, then stopped and went back. You could see him teetering on the horns of dilemma. Here was an animal genetically programmed not to pass up an egg." The fox finally made its call with what seemed to Stickney - a biologist for ABR, Inc., of Fairbanks, which has conducted fox behavioral studies for oil companies - to be perfectly foxy logic. He simply dropped the cream-colored egg he carried, picked up the second and sallied resolutely on across the wet Arctic green.

In Native lore, the white fox is neither clever nor cunning. It is a harmless sprite of the long northern night, a cheery escort with a saucy bark that announces the arrivals of polar bears. And with lightsome feet, the fox escorts the souls of children to the swirling, heavenward dance of the aurora borealis. But poignancies aside, the creature's appetite for eggs and birds is a powerful force in Far North ecosystems. And once human beings get into the act, whether by fox farming on islands or by overhunting waterfowl, the fragility of those ecosystems becomes all too clear.

Says Vernon Byrd, supervisory wildlife biologist for the Alaska National Maritime Wildlife Refuge, "We know that foxes take thousands of eggs and birds from refuge islands each year. And it's millions we're talking about over the years." Byrd and coworkers have spent two decades working - with considerable success - to restore bird colonies wiped out by fox populations established for fur farming between 1750 and 1950 on more than 450 islands. All concerned agree that removing introduced foxes from the islands is a biologically sound correction of human mismanagement.

On the mainland, however, foxes are indigenous, their relationship to bird colonies more complex and human intercession far less easy to justify - much less pull off. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, after decades of slow declines, four nesting goose species on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta reached unprecedented lows. The reason was largely overhunting by people, which took place at both ends of the birds' migratory paths. And the hunting, says Tom Rothe, waterfowl coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, "pushed the populations down to the level where other factors kicked in."

One of those factors was the arctic fox, which was going through a population boom. "In no way do we want to suggest arctic foxes caused the decline in geese," Rothe says. "But it's fair to say they suppressed the recovery." The hunting is now limited by more restrictive regulations and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Goose Management Plan formulated with rural hunters in Alaska, and the goose populations have largely recovered. Says Rothe, "Eventually, the geese outnumbered the ability of foxes to hold them back. The bottom line is that normally arctic foxes don't control bird populations. Only if the foxes are on an island or if goose populations get very low do foxes have an impact."

But it appears that people can alter the fox-bird equilibrium in other unintended ways too. …

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