Survival By Handout?

As a California city expands into the habitat of San Joaquin kit foxes, the endangered animals are showing up all over town

12-01-1996 // Sharon Begley

Endangered species are often as elusive as spies, and human sightings of the animals can be rare and remarkable occasions. The San Joaquin kit fox, however, listed as endangered since 1967, isn't quite in that category--at least so far.

Ask Delbert Bowen. For years in the 1980s, Bowen would arrive at his sanitation company in Bakersfield, California, at four in the morning. "As soon as I get out of my pickup, there's a fox," he told biologist Ted Murphy of California State University at Bakersfield, who has studied the foxes for more than a decade and has kept records of such anecdotes. "She follows me to the office and waits for me to give her a stale cake doughnut."

Murphy arranged with Bowen to set a sardine-baited trap for the fox in order to radio-collar her. When he returned the next day, Bowen greeted Murphy with a sly grin. "She was waiting for me this morning, but wouldn't go into the trap to get the sardines," Bowen reported. "So I put a doughnut in it, and she went right in."

Bowen retired and closed his business a couple of years later, and Murphy got a call from a woman who worked at a supermarket a couple of blocks away. Was it okay to feed a kit fox? "That depends on what you feed it," Murphy told her.

The strange part is," she said, "the only thing it will eat is cake doughnuts."

As just about anyone in Bakersfield can attest, the fox's taste in treats is just one of its many adjustments to urban life. "I have no knowledge of any other endangered species doing this," says Murphy. "What has happened here is that the town has grown up around the foxes." But for conservation biologists, the San Joaquin kit fox's adaptation to civilization has not made the animal any less mysterious--even in its numbers.

No one knows how many of North America's smallest canids remain. The best guess puts the number at between 2,000 and 6,000--some or even many of which (depending which biologist you ask) live within the city limits of Bakersfield, human population 213,000. Most of the rest of the foxes inhabit sparsely populated areas around the edges of the San Joaquin Valley.

In Bakersfield, the foxes are discovering the hazards as well as the rewards of city living. "I see them all over the place!" is a common remark. The little animals, weighing only five pounds at most, have shown up--and run into trouble--all over town. Fox families have lived, hunted and raised pups on the grounds of Meadows Field Airport and under the freeway in the center of town. Many are sustained by handouts from truck drivers or the confections dispensed by a sympathetic night watchman at a huge ice-cream plant.

A few of the animals have been bulldozed in their dens or poisoned at construction sites. Many bed down beneath fuel storage tanks after their preferred burrows are lost to development. They hunt in urban lots littered with broken glass and other debris. They are flattened by cars and trucks, and they are chased and sometimes killed by dogs. In 1984, two kit foxes died after becoming tangled in soccer nets at California State University.

The San Joaquin kit fox has survived as an urbanite in large part because of its adaptability. Its big ears and sensitive eyes locate prey such as bite-sized rodents (deer mice, kangaroo rats, ground squirrels) in evening twilight, when the fox becomes active after a day of snoozing in a burrow. The foxes use only one breeding den, but over the course of a year they may have one-night stays in as many as 60 burrows. The holes form a network of safe houses into which foxes can dart to escape predators such as coyotes and eagles.

A fox couple generally remains together for life. The pair mates in December or January, and in March four or five pups (in good years) are born. Each weighs about one pound. The young disperse in late summer or fall. Their natural predators are coyotes and eagles--though, oddly, at least one study found that coyotes kill the little foxes without consuming them, perhaps out of a sense of competition for prey. Now a new threat has sneaked up. The eastern red fox, a larger animal introduced to California at the turn of the century for fur farming and now abundant, seem to regard kit foxes as handy snacks.

Outside of Bakersfield, San Joaquin kit foxes roam such remaining ancestral habitat as the grassland and saltbrush scrub of the 180,000-acre Carrizo Plain--where a habitat conservation effort is underway--the nearby Elkhorn Plain and the Elk Hills of western Kern County. "Given the pace of development, it is questionable whether kit foxes can continue to survive in Bakersfield for much longer," says biologist Patrick Kelly, the director of the San Joaquin Valley Endangered Species Recovery Planning Program.

The animals once roamed the entire Central Valley and may have numbered in the tens of thousands. One reason biologists find the animals so difficult to count is that their numbers can fluctuate dramatically, apparently in response to drought and its effects on their prey. "But the steady, decades-long decline in the population of kit foxes cannot be attributed to drought," says Kelly. He instead blames large-scale habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation--much of which is due to agriculture. At least three quarters of the big-eared foxes' original habitat has been lost.

The federal Endangered Species Act requires that developers who adversely affect the habitat of an endangered species mitigate that damage. But many mitigation attempts have fallen short of the mark. Building artificial dens when the surrounding habitat is a strip mall is turning out to be about as effective as putting a Band-Aid over an amputation.

The best mitigation for development and loss of habitat is safeguarding the remaining natural lands," argues ecologist Jeff Single of the California Department of Fish and Game. Typically, a developer receives authorization for what's called an "incidental take" under the Endangered Species Act and then buys a conservation easement on a property, usually along the edges of the San Joaquin Valley in the remnants of the kit fox's traditional range. The easement is essentially a payment to a property owner to keep the land undeveloped. But the mitigation may be too little, too late.

The strategies we have seen may have slowed the decline of kit foxes throughout their range," says Kelly, "but they have not stopped it, let alone reversed it." For that to occur, say biologists, there must be corridors between Bakersfield and the large population in western Kern County--such as the Elk Hills Naval Petroleum Reserve. Also, the Kern River Parkway must be connected to the western lands by a protected corridor, and natural open spaces must be maintained within Bakersfield for kit foxes and their prey. Red foxes and stray dogs must be controlled.

Would that be enough to stop the decline? Ecologist Single is optimistic that "with such steps the urban population has a chance to remain viable for 40 or 50 years." But maybe not as the free and wild creature nature intended. Says Murphy, "Even though corridors will link Bakersfield to more natural, managed reserves in the West, the kit fox population in town will go down, and those that remain may become true junkyard dogs."

Newsweek science editor Sharon Begley is a frequent contributor to National Wildlife. Michael Evan Sewell, a resident of Marin County, California, specializes in photographing predators.

Those Ears, Those Feet

From top to bottom, kit foxes are exquisitely adapted to their desert environment. Their cartoonish ears, which may serve as air conditioning, probably help their noses locate prey in the relative coolness of night. Their feet, like those of red foxes, have hairy soles, which may give traction on sand. The foxes are also remarkably fast runners and zigzag as they flee. "Their speed and agility in the field is certainly a sight to behold," says biologist Patrick Kelly, director of the San Joaquin Valley Endangered Species Recovery Planning Program. "I call kit foxes the ballet dancers of the dog family."

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