San Juan Island Residents Are at War with Wildlife Photographers

San Juan Island Foxes
Image credit: © Glenn Nelson /

A years-long conflict has been brewing on the picturesque San Juan Island in northwestern Washington, and photographers are taking unwarranted and unreasonable heat for their alleged role in the tension.

Core to the story are the island’s photogenic red foxes. However, they are not the whole story. The fluffy and charismatic canids seem much more like the poster child for a campaign against change, a desire for seclusion, and a battle for ownership over a place and protecting what that place represents for the people who live there.

Glenn Nelson has spent the past two years visiting San Juan Island and San Juan Island National Historical Park, getting to the bottom of what he calls “the fox war.” In his brilliant special report for The Seattle Times, Nelson details the island’s fascinating history, rich ecosystem, and how some people’s animosity toward photographers outpaces any semblance of reason.

Nelson is a former Seattle Times reporter, founder of The Trail Posse, community director at Birds Connect Seattle — the first Audubon in the United States to discard its slave-owning namesake — and an avid photojournalist.

Viral Fox Photo Sets Off a Chain Reaction

Before discussing the uncomfortable reality of San Juan Island today, it is worth taking a detour to five years ago because, as Nelson writes, “Nature photographer Kevin Ebi of Lynnwood arguably but unwittingly touched off this ongoing drama.”

San Juan Island Foxes
This incredible photo from San Juan Island went viral in 2018 and sent photographers to the beautiful island in droves. | Credit: © Kevin Ebi

“While photographing the non-native foxes in San Juan Island National Historical Park on San Juan Island in Washington state, Ebi spotted a young red fox carrying a rabbit it had caught across a meadow. As he panned his camera to follow that fox, a bald eagle suddenly swooped in from behind Ebi and grabbed the rabbit while it was in the fox’s mouth,” Michael Zhang wrote on PetaPixel in 2018.

The photo went viral, and the ears of nature and wildlife photographers worldwide perked up: Incredible wildlife in a beautiful location. What more could any photographer want? Predictably, droves of photographers soon flocked to San Juan Island, much to the dismay of its residents.

A Changing Island Falls into Conflict

PetaPixel chatted with Nelson about his story and the situation on San Juan Island. From everything he describes, the foxes seem like the cute face of a local campaign against change and development.

“What seems actually in jeopardy, for the island’s residents as well as its national park, is a quiet existence that their relative isolation once seemed to guarantee. And so the sensitive habitat that off-island photographers actually might be encroaching — at least, symbolically — is that belonging to people, not foxes,” writes Nelson.

It is worth mentioning that the red foxes on San Juan Island are not native. They were introduced sometime in the 20th century — reportedly sometime between 1930 and 1960 — to control a massive rabbit population, which itself is a non-native inhabitant of San Juan Island. It is believed that domestic rabbits were released in the late 19th century to create a food source for lighthouse keepers.

That the red foxes that roam San Juan Island in huge numbers now are the descendants of non-native species has no bearing on their being worthy of protection, of course. Still, it is not evident that the red fox population there needs any protection.

“Though a national park representative declared on regional television that, ‘The island’s beloved red foxes are in jeopardy,’ there is little to no evidence to support that claim,” Nelson writes.

A ‘Fox Brigade’ Battles Shutterbugs

Advocating on behalf of the island’s foxes, Kyle Kittoe was a member of the Fox Brigade, a volunteer group that aimed to teach park visitors about the red foxes and how to observe them safely. The Fox Brigade has since disbanded, only to be replaced by a new volunteer group, Prairie Ambassadors, that appear to occupy a similar role as the defunct Fox Brigade.

“These critters live on the edge of survival. They need time and space to live their lives. And if you’re intruding on it, it makes it harder for them,” Kittoe says, citing times he has witnessed “20 people” within “20 feet” of fox kits and their mom.

However, Nelson himself has observed a very different reality.

“After that initial vacation [in April 2022], I returned to San Juan Island eight more times for multiple-day visits. I observed residents, social-media influencers, local media, and national park staff and volunteers disrupting (or fanning talk about disrupting) photographers and other perceived off-island transgressors. Island residents were observed, and photographed, feeding hot dogs and chicken wings to foxes, unleashing dogs and firing air horns into dens, then using social media to blame such tactics on photographers trying to get better pictures,” Nelson writes.

He notes that on at least three occasions during just the first two weeks of May 2022, photographers called the police concerning incidents with locals.

Photographers Face the Ire of Residents

The people of San Juan Island must love wildlife. After all, people are harassing photographers, bullying them off the island entirely, claiming that the island’s foxes need protection from dastardly outsiders and their telephoto lenses.

The situation is so much murkier than that.

The park’s superintendent, Elexis J. Fredy, acknowledges that the photographers that come to the park to photograph its beautiful foxes are possibly being cast as the collective boogeyman for the people who live — or just vacation — on San Juan Island and who hate how the island has changed.

As has been the case with many national parks, visitor numbers to San Juan Island National Historical Park have skyrocketed in recent years, buoyed mainly by people wanting to go somewhere relatively remote and safe during the pandemic.

The quiet people sought when moving to San Juan Island, the same peace people want to experience as tourists, has been disrupted.

Whether photographers are more disruptive than any other visitors to San Juan Island, they are by far the easiest to spot and, therefore, the easiest to target.

“Locals have been singling out one user group [fox photographers] that maybe doesn’t deserve it,” Amy Nesler of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau tells Nelson.

Are Foxes Actually in Danger?

Foxes might actually be in danger, but not from photographers.

Photographer Max Waugh has a Commercial Use Authorization (CUA) to host guided workshops at San Juan National Historical Park and held tours in 2019 and intended to continue to do so last year when the park fully opened following the pandemic.

However, as Waugh writes on his website, anti-photographer regulations and sentiment resulted in him canceling a pair of sold-out tours.

An updated park map was created following a town hall meeting in March 2022. The revised map closed off access to the famous fox-filled prairie at American Camp and restricted visitor access to roads and trails.

“This change has effectively moved photographers back at least 100 yards, on average, from the clearest, most reliable places to photograph kits, and eliminates any ability for people to change viewing or shooting angles,” Waugh explains.

“I felt compelled to cancel my tours, since the new regulations ensured we would lack sufficient viewing and photography opportunities to make my own tour offerings worthwhile for clients (most reports from folks who have been to the island recently to check out the new situation back up this assertion). It’s important to point out, of course, that this was my decision based on my own goals for the experience I desired my clients to have. Some photographers may still deem the new situation to be adequate for their own goals (I’ve heard from a couple), while others are likely to feel this greatly hampers their ability to have or lead a successful trip,” he adds.

2022 came and went, and Waugh did not lead his photo tours on San Juan Island. The park’s regulations, which sought to protect the foxes, did impact the island’s fox population.

“Two things immediately occurred as folks arrived at the area now closed to public access. First, the Bald Eagles came in and hunted the fox kits in the prairie. As was the case in 2020 (when the area was devoid of tourists due to COVID), the raptors were emboldened by the lack of people in the field. Some photographers were lucky to be on hand to document eagles flying away with kits, but soon there were no kits left,” Waugh writes.

The second problem is that people found a den site unaffected by the park’s regulatory changes. Many people crowded the den because it was the only chance to see foxes. This is where the hot dogs and chicken legs that Nelson mentions were doled out — again, not by photographers.

“Photographers referred to by locals as the ‘Foxerazzi’ are arriving on the island in large groups of around 20. The groups encircle fox dens at the height of kitting season in the hopes of snagging the perfect shot, but that pursuit has a price…At the start of this past spring, there were six fox kits living at Cattle Point Nature Preserve. By the end of the season, all six were dead,” writes KIRO 7, implying that photographers are to blame. The article does not discuss the dead kits that eagles nabbed.

“Red foxes can do quite well from being in close proximity to us,” David Drake, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells Nelson. “When they move into an urban environment, they are well aware that there’s a density of people and that activity patterns of people are different than for nonurban areas. There’s more light pollution, more noise, more human activity — and they adapt. The red fox can benefit from being near people because there might be refuge from predators, and they are likely getting some type of food resource that is both natural and might be even provided. There’s also a lot of different types of shelter availability,” Drake explains.

Some claim that a fed fox is a dead fox. It seems that a distanced fox may be a dead fox, too.

The bald eagles that feast on foxes are a protected species. San Juan Island is home to a second protected species, the island marble butterfly. As Nelson tells PetaPixel, not only is San Juan Island the only place in the world where this exceptional butterfly lives, but it seems that the people who purport to care so deeply for the red foxes seem to very rarely, if ever, mention the butterflies.

Contradictory Motivations on San Juan Island

The story of San Juan Island and the so-called “fox war” is fascinating for many reasons. There is the intriguing photography angle, of course, but the situation there also reflects society at large. Whenever an area experiences change, it affects different groups of people in highly varied ways.

Some of the island’s residents live there because they want to be somewhere remote and alone, able to enjoy their beautiful backyards in peace. Others rely on tourism to survive and make more money when people visit the island in greater numbers.

As for the park, the staff is caught in between feuding parties. On the one hand, any good park ranger wants to be able to safely share everything the park has to offer with as many visitors as possible. But for Fredy, maintaining a strong relationship with neighbors matters too.

When it comes to photographers specifically, there is no question that some of them do behave poorly. Despite the National Park Service’s very clear and reasonable advice concerning ethical wildlife viewing, including the rule that visitors must always stay at least 75 feet away from animals, some people still behave recklessly and stress out wildlife.

However, it is difficult to believe that irresponsible visitors are anything but few and far between, and they are not exclusively photographers.

Wildlife photography is an incredible way for people to enjoy nature, learn about animals, and share their passion for conservation with others. Great photos inspire and educate. A beautiful wildlife image should always be the result of care and respect. Anything else is wrong and should be discouraged and punished.

But blaming photographers for everything is preposterous and detached from reality.

While people scream at photographers, a bald eagle swoops and grabs a newborn fox. As park staff erect new entry barriers, another kit is dragged to its death. When one local blames photographers for hand-feeding foxes and laying bait, another local drops a hot dog from their pocket, ready to point at the nearest person with a big lens, “See, look, we told you!”

Where there are people, there will be bad apples. It is an unfortunate and unavoidable reality of living in any society. However, the trees from which these bad apples fall may be much closer to home than people want to admit.

Image credits: Featured image © Glenn Nelson. Many more of Nelson’s red fox photos are available on The Trail Posse’s website.