At first glance, the prarie at American Camp on San Juan Island seems like a perfect place for nature photography.  Sitting alongside the waters of the Straight of Juan De Fuca in the Pacific Northwest, the grasslands offer many sights of wildlife, including foxes, rabbits, deer, and bald eagles.

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The prarie at American Camp National Historical Park, San Juan Island, WA.

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Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Not only that, but the sights on offer show these animals in action, in their natural habitat.  Taking a shot of a red fox in a zoo is one thing, but it’s completely different to photograph one on the hunt in the wild, or even nursing pups.

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A vixen (female fox) gets ready to nurse her pups as they emerge from their den.

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A red fox (silver color phase) on the prowl.

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A red fox can be any combination of red, silver, and black.

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Regardless of fur color, red foxes tend to have thick, white-tipped tails.

It is interesting to note, though, that this scene is not entirely “natural”.  Red foxes are non-native species on San Juan Island.  They were introduced in 1947 to combat the European rabbit, which is another inhabitant of the American Camp prairie.

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European rabbit (Oryctolagus cunuculus)

The rabbits themselves were introduced to the island in the late 1880’s, and the population at American Camp now totals around 500.  They are destroying the prarie by digging extensive burrow systems, which change the landscape by preventing local species of grasses and wildflowers from growing.  This, in turn, increases wind and water erosion in the area.  It also drives out local animal species, such as Townsend’s vole, a small mammal which is a source of food for many other local animals, including bald eagles, hawks, owls and snakes.  This illustrates how invasive species like the European rabbit tend to decrease species diversity of an ecosystem, which ultimately affects it’s productivity and stability.

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A European rabbit in a series of burrows which have elimanated local grasses.

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A fox in the barren landscape created by the European rabbits.

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A red fox on the prarie in an area without the rabbit burrows.

The National Park Service is planning on trying to eliminate the rabbits at American Camp, as part of their native prairie restoration project.  This has caused some people to question whether that might have negative impacts on the red fox and bald eagle populations.

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A bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) surveys the prairie from a tree top nearby.

The short answer is not much.  Both animals have a broad diet that includes many types of prey besides rabbit.  Foxes are omnivorous, and on the island they also eat insects, mice, birds, snakes, nuts, berries and fruits.  Incidentally, one of their favorite foods is the Townsend’s vole, which is being driven from the area due to the rabbits in the first place.  Eliminating the rabbits should allow the Townsend’s vole population to increase.  Besides, foxes are a non-native species, and are not a part of the natural habitat.  The bald eagle, though, is a native species, and it’s preservation is essential to the health of the local ecosystem.

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A bald eagle on the prairie, eating it’s prey, which couldn’t be identified.

While bald eagles do prey on rabbits, their diet also includes many other types of prey, such as small mammals, birds, marine invertebrates, fish, and carrion.  Like the fox, they also prey on the Townsend’s vole, so the elimination of rabbits could have a positive impact on some prey availability.  And again, the bald eagle was on the island before the rabbits were, and is not expected to be impacted by their removal.

While non-native species can pose problems for local species, upsetting the delicate balance of an ecosystem can cause local species to negatively impact other local species as well.  For example, another common sight on the prairie is the Columbia blacktail deer, which is the largest land mammal in the San Juan Islands. Even though they are a native species, they are having a negative impact on local plant and bird species.

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A Columbia blacktail deer on San Juan Island.

The reason for this is the wolves, or lack of them.  Wolves were the deer’s only natural predator on the island, but were eradicated in the mid-1800’s because they were preying on commercially farmed sheep.  Due to a lack of predators and changing regulations, deer populations on the island are growing, and so, too, is the effects of their grazing.

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The Columbia blacktail deer population is growing, due to a lack of natural predators and a change in regulations and attitudes towards hunting.

The deer prefer to eat local shrub species that are home to birds such as sparrows, warblers, and hummingbirds.  The birds use these shrubs for feeding and nesting.  As the deer population increases, so does their consumption of these plant species.  This reduction in habitat has caused the bird populations to decline.  It has also assisted the invasion of non-native plant species, which as we’ve seen can have a negative impact on ecosystem biodiversity, productivity, and stability.

A common theme to these species interactions is interference by humans.  Rabbit and fox introductions, as well as wolf eradication have had a big impact on species diversity and distribution.  There is one more impact from humans that should be noted.  The tourism industry is bringing more and more people in contact with these animals, with negative impacts of it’s own.

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It is easy for tourists and their cars to visit the island by taking a ferry from the mainland.

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Some visitors feed wild animals, encouraging them to approach people and cars on the road.

Unfortunately, people sometimes feed wild animals at the park, which has several negative effects (it is also illegal in all national parks).  One is that it exposes them to traffic on the roads, with obvious consequences.  One fox was so comfortable with cars and humans that he walked right up to me, within arms length, looking for a handout.  When I didn’t respond, he walked out into the middle of the road and just stood there. And he was on a blind curve, as well.

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A red fox standing in the middle of the road, with his back to a blind curve.

It is also important to realize that not all human food is good animal food.  Some of the food that we eat can actually be toxic to wild animals.  Another consequence of animal feeding is that they can get used to the handouts, and may lose the ability to fend for themselves.  Not only that, but their behavior can be affected as well, with some animals becoming aggressive and attacking people for food.  This can result in animals being captured and euthanized by authorities, all because they were fed by animal lovers with good intentions.  Unfortunately, as the saying goes, “a fed animal is a dead animal”.

The prairie at American Camp is certainly a unique place, and a great place to go if you want to photograph foxes and rabbits.  As it turns out, it’s also a great place to shoot the effects of non-native species on a local habitat.  For me, as a nature photographer, that is a very interesting subject to shoot, and an important one as well.  Hopefully the pictures will make others feel the same.

Posted by Kit Swartz

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