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Wednesday, Aug 10 2016
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On the same day in May that President Obama made bison the "National Mammal," a calf struggled across a frigid river in Yellowstone National Park's Lamar Valley. Seemingly abandoned, it stumbled to the warmth of a car's tailpipe, shivering. Taking pity on the wild animal, two tourists put the calf in the back of their SUV and drove it to the nearest park ranger. The Good Samaritans received a citation for illegally transporting a bison, and the calf had to be put down after several herds subsequently refused to adopt it.

Like many people, Bill Leikam has heard the story. But unlike many people, Leikam has long considered how animals and humans can coexist. And, to put it mildly, the 76-year-old would be the last person on earth you'd catch stuffing a bison into an SUV.

"People don't understand what's going on, as a whole," Leikam says, forking another bite of jerk chicken at his favorite Jamaican restaurant in Palo Alto. "Most of what happens in ecosystems happens at night. If people don't see it, they don't believe it. It's out of sight, out of mind."

When Leikam flutters his hand in front of his ruddy, bearded face to emphasize the point, there's something Gandalfian about the man and his vision. For the last seven years, in the heart of Silicon Valley, where every parcel of land is fought over for housing or cabling or parking, Leikam has defended the ecosystem of Urocyon cinereoargenteus, or the gray fox. No bigger than a housecat but the progenitor of all canines, gray foxes by the dozens roam the small hills and dales less than 10 miles from the restaurant where we're listening to Bob Marley.

What started as a pet project for Leikam's retirement years eventually caught the attention of the BBC, which is interested in a documentary on the gray foxes he's observed so closely and for so long. Interest, and some small funding, from other organizations followed: National Wildlife Federation, Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge, Pathways for Wildlife, and CuriOdyssey.

It seems impossible, or like another world, and that was exactly Leikam's point. He hopes to restore the Bay Area's faith in the natural but unseen world of foxes, a world that preceded us by millions of years but might not last another two decades without coordinated protection.

"One might ask, 'Why foxes — gray foxes, at that?'" Leikam says. "Ben Sacks, Director of Mammalian Ecology at UC Davis, told me gray foxes have never interbred with any other canine known, so their DNA is pure running back at least 3.5 million years."

Although not a biologist by training, Leikam's passion for wildlife started decades ago, as he roamed the wilder hills of Santa Cruz County. He saw his first gray fox in 1953, in the Watsonville area. He hopes part of the protection for the foxes will come from the first-ever nine-county ballot measure — the recently passed Measure AA — and its $12-per-year parcel tax for the preservation of wetlands around the Bay.

"One area where we are studying foxes will most likely be underwater by 2050," Leikam says. "Without adequate planning and protection, the consequences for wildlife will be staggering."

The gray fox doesn't just need protection from drowning, however. It needs a natural corridor for "dispersal," to maintain a healthy population.

The concept of natural corridors for wildlife is gaining ground all over the country. L.A.'s infamous mountain lion, P-22, which somehow crossed Interstate 405 and Highway 101 only to trap itself in Griffith Park, inspired locals and people from all over the world to fund such an idea. Pathways for Wildlife in Santa Cruz is designing a natural corridor for coyotes and bobcats to bypass the county's treacherous Highway 17, a win-win for animals that don't like getting hit by cars and the cars that don't much enjoy hitting them.

In one week, I'm headed to the largest natural corridor project in the country: Yellowstone to Yukon, which hopes to save the last primal ecosystem in the lower 48 by establishing a boundary twice the size of Texas for the safe passage and overall health of elk, grizzlies, wolves, and other mammals.

"Foxes don't need the space of Yellowstone," says Greg Kerekes, Leikam's right-hand man and expert photographer. Although too tall for a Hobbit, his spectacled face and thin, curly beard are enough to keep the Tolkien metaphor going. Leikam estimates the foxes need only a corridor about twice the width of the wall he's leaning against — approximately 15 feet — as long as that corridor can connect to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Without that space — or "connectivity," as wildlife biologists describe it — foxes will most likely inbreed. Inbreeding can cause genetic abnormalities, including one that Leikam describes that sounds sickeningly familiar to the limp dorsal fins of pent-up killer whales in the documentary Blackfish: sagging ears. In a species almost wholly reliant on a keen sense of hearing in order to hunt, sagging ears are not an evolutionary advantage.

Although the majority of Leikam and Kerekes' insights into the urban gray fox population has been observational, they line up with larger ecosystem studies that maintain that animals need large areas of land to maintain health. Revered biologist E.O. Wilson has been warning that islands of "biodiversity" — a term the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner coined in 1986 — will sustain populations only until they crash, as the dodo did, which David Quammen also explained in his 1996 book Song of the Dodo.

Quammen's opening metaphor in Dodo nails the importance of connectivity: If you take a Persian carpet and cut it into 36 equal pieces, do you end up with 36 Persian carpets? No, you end up with "ragged fragments, each one worthless and commencing to come apart." Slicing and dicing ecosystems with our roads, buildings, and overall population can have the same effect on the flora and fauna trying to live within them.

In the Bay Area, besides the obvious challenge of setting aside land for a fox that a multibillion-dollar developer wants first, there are other hurdles that healthy ecosystems face. No. 1 on Leikam and Kereke's list is the removal of rat traps tainted with rodenticide, which stud the perimeter of many tech buildings in the industrial South Bay. This pest-control practice is decades old, a relic of the DDT days, when we put the poison out before mice or rats even got close. California Assemblymember Richard Bloom introduced AB 2596 to the State Assembly back in February, a bill that would make it illegal to use anticoagulant poisons anywhere in California.

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Tom Molanphy

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