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Saving the endangered Fennoscandian Alopex lagopus (SEFALO+) (Arctic Fox)
Start date: Jun 1, 2003, End date: Jun 1, 2008 PROJECT  FINISHED 

Background The arctic fox (Alopex lagopus) is found in mountain (fjeld) and tundra areas on the Northern Hemisphere. To a large extent it feeds on small rodents and the population size fluctuates greatly depending on the availability of food. Carrion from reindeer and other animals, which have been killed by large carnivores, is another important component in the diet, as are ptarmigans. Competition and predation pressure from the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), which has increased in numbers in the mountain areas, and the scarcity of animals has added to the arctic fox’s problems. Young foxes have difficulties in finding a non-related partner. In the EU, the arctic fox is found only in the northern parts of Sweden and Finland. The population size has declined drastically during the 20th century, and the adult population was estimated to be just 100 animals in 1997. As a result, there is a considerable risk that the population could go extinct due to random fluctuations in demographic parameters. The population development is similar in adjacent parts of Norway and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Against this background, the first LIFE-Nature project was implemented form 1998 till 2002. The main actions included supplementary feeding and control of the red fox, in order to reduce competition for food and breeding dens from the expanding red fox population. The population did not decline further during this period. In 2001 there was a peak of Norwegian lemming (Lemmus lemmus) and the arctic fox population finally responded with a substantial increase in the number of young individuals. At present, the species remains in a precarious state and it was considered necessary to launch a second project to consolidate the achievements of the first. Various experiences gained in the first project have been taken into account. The most important change is that the project will now take an individual-orientated approach rather than a spatial approach when carrying out its activities of supplementary feeding and red fox control. This will ensure that the efforts are maximised. In addition the project will investigate the different diseases arctic foxes are prone to, as this is one of the main reasons why captive breeding has proven to be unsuccessful so far. Objectives The project aimed to increase the reproductive output and decrease mortality of the arctic fox, and thereby substantially increase population viability. Furthermore, by making information available on a website and to local tourist operators, the project planned to promote public co-operation and understanding for the actions needed to support the Fennoscandian population. Results The project demonstrated that a combination of feeding, hunting, protection around dens and information-sharing can halt the population decline and even increase the population size of arctic foxes and increase the chances for their long-term viability. In areas where intensive actions were performed, the population has more than doubled over a four-year period. It is important to remember that it is the combination of actions that have resulted in the positive population development during the project period. All actions were completed together, and it is difficult to determine which was the most effective. Information-sharing and protection around dens are difficult to evaluate in a quantitative way, but they are important factors in the cumulative conservation efforts. The information work creates an understanding for the actions and also informs people on how to avoid disturbing the arctic foxes. Another key result of the project was the development of tools and techniques for future conservation work by the management authorities. The conservation effort will continue but not to the same extent as during the project and there will probably be large differences between the different areas. Despite the actions of the project, most of the threats against the Fennoscandian population remain. The low population size is still a threat, even if the number of litter has increased. Competition and predation by the red fox is also still a threat and will remain so be in the future. It is hoped that extended actions will lead to a balance between the competitions of these two species, lifting arctic fox populations up to a level where actions are no longer needed. Finally, the project helped increase ecological understanding of why arctic fox populations have not increased after more than 70 years of protection. However, the increased number of arctic foxes constitutes a good start for further population increase. If the population continues to respond over the last five years, it will be less vulnerable to the extinction threats. The final goal is that that the arctic fox population becomes self sustaining. Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).
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