Battle of the foxes

Guest author: Samuli Karppinen

“It was the fifth red fox for the same day”. “Foxes are everywhere”, I thought numerous times during my summer job time in the region of Inari. I was amazed at the number of red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) present in the very northern part of Finland. Nearly every day and no matter where I went, I discovered foxes. I observed foxes close to settlements, and at the end of forest gravel roads. They were mainly lonely adults, but litters of the same year were common too. In addition, the number of red fox dens supported the idea that they succeed well in the northern part of Finland. The arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) is adapted to life in arctic areas. In Finland, arctic foxes have bred in the regions of Inari and Utsjoki. Arctic fox populations are similar in size to those in Sweden and Norway. Population size at the end of the 1800s was estimated to be 15 000 individuals. At present, the size of the population is estimated to be only 120 individuals. Despite yearly sightings of arctic foxes in Finland, it is nearly 20 years since the last confirmed arctic fox litter. During the summer I began wondering how red foxes influence the declining arctic fox population?

The Arctic fox in Polar Park Norway. © Sari Holopainen

The Arctic fox in Polar Park Norway. © Sari Holopainen

Intensive hunting in the early 1900s was the ultimate reason for the collapse of the Fennoscandian arctic fox population. Even though arctic foxes were protected in 1940, the population did not return to its earlier size. There are several probable causes. Due to changes in reindeer husbandry, arctic foxes cannot exploit the same number of carrions. Global warming causes problems to arctic species and the arctic fox does not stretch the point. Climate change affects snow cover, which reflects on the amount of lemmings. Lemmings are a vital food source for arctic foxes. Arctic fox brood and litter sizes are bigger when the amount of voles and lemming are at their highest point. In addition, global warming is raising the tree line to higher altitudes on the fells. This improves the survival of red foxes in the areas inhabited by the arctic fox.

The red and arctic foxes cannot inhabit the same territory. Research has uncovered that red foxes colonize and annihilate arctic fox dens. The red fox is very adaptable to different habitats and competes for food with the arctic fox. The striking winning picture of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 –competition underlines the interactions between the two species. The arctic fox is smaller than the red fox and loses the competition for food and habitats. Exploring the number of litters in the last 20 years, it can be seen that while red fox litters have grown, arctic fox litters have declined. The first idea to prevent the spreading of red fox populations is extensive hunting. At the beginning of the millennium, red foxes were intensively hunted in the fell areas of Enontekiö and Utsjoki under the Naali Life – project. The catch quotas appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestrywere fulfilledvery well by hunters each year. Unfortunately, the hunting alone and the short hunting period in particular had hardly any significance for the arctic foxes.The hunting probably only improved the living conditions of the remaining red foxes and the population might even have strengthened.

Fox cub in Inari. © Samuli Karppinen

Fox cub in Inari. © Samuli Karppinen

Finnish hunters are active in culling semi-predators, like red foxes. It seems that Finnish hunters actively cull semi-predators up to the height of the Arctic Circle. Active culling does not occur in the regions of Inari and Utsjoki, at least in the same scales.Reasons for this are clear: hunters are less enthusiastic, distances are long, the road network is sparse, and snow coveris thick. Maybe hunters of northern Finland don’t feel that culling is as important as hunters in southern Finland do. Red fox culling has to be continuous and intensive year after year for it to have positive effects on the arctic fox population. In 2015, the Finnish wildlife agency, as a part of Management of invasive Raccoon Dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides) in the north-European countries project, started a project to cull the raccoon dog population in Lapland. A similar project, focused on the red fox, could be a good motivator for local hunters to cull the red foxes.

Research has indicated that lynx (Lynx lynx) regulate red fox populations. Foxes do not succeed in areas where lynx populations are abundant. One of the reasons for red fox success in the fell areas could be a lack of lynx. Unfortunately, it is not realistic to expect that lynx could be the arctic fox’s rescuer. The EU-Life project SEFALO+ (Save the Endangered Fennoscandian Alopex lagopus) has shown that a combination of actions, supplementary feeding, red fox culling, and protection of dens, could cease the decline of the arctic fox population and even enhance it. Nevertheless, I began wondering whether all these actions to save the arctic fox population in the Nordic countries will merely delay their extinction? Their population is small and genetic variation low. Diseases may heavily impact such a small population. Another possible threat to the arctic fox is the occurrence of escaped farm foxes on the mountain tundra. They can breed with wild arctic foxes, but hybrids do not survive in the wild. There are many problems and threats, which Fennoscandian arctic fox population have to face to avoid extinction.

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Letting nature run its course – what to do with wildlife population control

We are used to hearing about drastic decreases and collapses in wildlife population levels. The other side of this coin are the species that seem to be increasing in population – even up to ecologically unsustainable levels. Should humans take an active role in preventing this development (as often its causes are human-induced) or just chill and watch natural population dynamics take its eventual yet inevitable toll?

Wildlife population control is a very human way of thinking about evolution and changing species dynamics. It is easy to think that current species are static, with only population levels being dynamic and varying – and even these usually are considered to decline rather than gain in size. All animal species are adaptive however, and evolution is ongoing – with or without human intervention. We therefore face several situations where species or their population sizes have begun evolving or developing in directions that we do not approve of.

The control of an entire species is a very controversial topic, which raises a myriad of ethical questions, debate, and opinions both locally and globally.

Wildlife population control can be performed to

1) mitigate economic loss (e.g. the loss of cattle suffered due to wildlife-spread diseases),

2) prevent the spread of human diseases (e.g. tick-borne diseases, or strands of Avian flu in eastern Asia transmitted by wildfowl),

3) minimize or prevent habitat alteration (e.g. rises in African elephant populations in several countries have caused disruptions to ecosystem health due to their strong alteration of vegetation communities. Elephant population density is actually a stronger predictor of vegetation change than rainfall),

4) eradicate alien species (e.g. grey squirrels in Europe), and

5) mitigate human-wildlife conflicts (e.g. tigers in India).

The most widely used control methods include culling, hunting, fishing, vaccination programs, relocation, and affecting the reproductive success of species.

Culling is one the most controversial of these methods, raising the most ethical questions and widespread disapproval in local communities. All of the abovementioned methods can be performed sustainably, but only when thorough thought and planning are put into their execution. For example, the African elephant problem has been attempted to solve by a combination of culling and translocation. Adult individuals of both sexes have been systematically exterminated and the young ones relocated to more suitable areas. This has caused significant problems however, as young bull elephants not experiencing normal socialization through their herd often exhibit behavioral problems and aggression, and can be very dangerous to other elephants and local villages.

Several opinions on species control exist, all of which fall into three separate points of view: human gain, conservation, and animal welfare and rights. Each focuses on different aspects of population growth, and their differences are discussed briefly. Human gain considers humans to have the right to control wildlife populations when they are at risk of causing economic loss or disease spreading to livestock or humans. Conservation recognizes the necessity of species interdependencies, their complex nature, the benefits of biodiversity, and the “right to life” of all organisms. This viewpoint therefore sees population control as necessary in certain situations, e.g. when the abundance of one species threatens the existence of another or is causing marked habitat alteration. Animal welfare and rights advocates do not believe that population control is ethical in any situations, as they promote an individual’s right to life over species and populations.

A widespread culling program is currently in operation in the UK, where a six-week cull, expected to kill 5000 badgers, was initiated during the summer of 2013. Badgers are a carrier of bovine tuberculosis (bTB), which can spread to cattle and cause severe illness and death. The UK government has therefore issued a controlled badger cull to certain areas of England, despite contradictory estimates from several nature organizations stating that no proof exists in favor of badger population control affecting bTB incidence. Some environmentalists even fear that the cull will only increase the spread of the disease, as normally sedentary badgers will move around more. Bovine TB annually kills 30 000 cattle in Britain and incurs costs of up to £100 million. It is easy to see why a solution is desperately hoped for, but even the UK government has estimated that a controlled cull reaching over a nine-year time frame would reduce disease occurrence by 9-16% at best. The cull costs of a four-year trial period would rise to £5 million. Additionally, only approximately 6% of UK badgers carry bTB, while the cull would exterminate an estimated 70% of local badger populations across the trial area. When looking purely at these numbers, the cull does not sound encouraging or effective for diminishing disease spread. Added to this are the fear of inhumane culling methods, as free shooting will inevitably injure scores of individuals that will be left to slowly die, and the risk of destabilizing local ecosystems and natural communities where the badger is an important omnivorous predator. The public has widely condemned the culling program.

An interesting question therefore is where do we draw the line? Is population control ok when it does not kill individuals? What about the as-of-yet not understood influences of systematically vaccinating large wildlife populations or reducing their fertility? How do we ensure that these measures remain species-specific, instead of spreading rampantly in an ecosystem? And is it acceptable to transport species to new areas, where their interaction with other organisms and the ecosystem are unclear?

What right, if any, do we have to control the populations of other species? How do we determine the ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ status of a species, and is there any species that we could currently consider our equal?

Ravens (Corvus corax) are intelligent animals. © Sari Holopainen

Ravens (Corvus corax) are intelligent animals. © Sari Holopainen

In the hypothetical situation that one species alongside us begins to evolve higher intelligence, would we allow it? Or would we see this as such a personal threat to our species that culling – planned or unintentional- would inevitably ensue? The corvids are the most intelligent birds on the planet, and as they also exhibit a strong sense of curiosity, their intelligence is currently growing at one of the fastest rates in the animal kingdom. If they (or some primate or cetacean species) began developing more quickly and more human-like behavior, would we accept it? Are we able to see evolution, basically the adaption of a species to using new resources, as a natural and ongoing phenomenon or are we unable to see the potential this brings with it? Can we just sit back and chill, or will we always control everything around us?

Discussion about invasive species etc. in Nature