Lotus Vermeer downshifts into first, and the brown Landcruiser lurches up another steep dirt track on Santa Cruz Island, on a Nature Conservancy preserve three times the size of Manhattan off the coast of Southern California. After seven years navigating the island’s accordion-fold topography as director of the Conservancy’s work on Santa Cruz, Vermeer has earned solid four-wheel-drive credentials. But her petite frame means she often has to lean out the side of the doorless truck to see the road in front of the hood.
It’s during one of these maneuvers that she spots a speckled gray-and-orange ball of fur lounging in the road. She slams on the brakes. With its short snout, squat legs and feather-duster tail, the endangered Santa Cruz Island fox looks more like a plush toy than a svelte carnivore. The fox, which is half the size of a house cat and a quarter the size of its mainland canine relatives, gazes at the truck a moment before loping off into a stand of sagebrush.
“You just saw the top predator on the island,” Vermeer says with a grin. “Pretty ferocious.”