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Wednesday, Aug 10 2016
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"For example, when the bison numbers rebounded, bird species that used to pluck the bison's thick fur for nests began to rebound as well. They could now survive the winter with insulated nests," says Y2Y Alberta Chair David Thomson.

Biologists call this the "trophic cascade effect," an intricate and interconnected series of natural responses that's as sophisticated a system as anything Silicon Valley could dream up.

Although land bridges over busy highways and safe passageways through ranchlands could help keep this ecosystem healthy, larger environmental forces such as climate change are much harder to abate. Several Y2Y members referenced Quammen's recent issue-length feature in National Geographic, especially the distinct danger of grizzlies losing a valuable protein source, the White Bark pine nut, because global warming had decreased the deep freezes necessary to kill off the pine bark beetle that has already devastated huge swaths of Canadian and U.S. forests.

If the pine nuts are completely lost, the grizzlies would be forced to look for another protein source — moose down in the Tetons, perhaps? — and that shift would create further reactions in the interconnected web.

When I raise the issue of the tourists who tried to save the baby bison, I get a mix of disbelief, laughter, and some off-the-record disgust. Y2Y's President and Chief Scientist Jodi Hilty, who oversaw the team who helped create the very first U.S. federally designated wildlife corridor, a land bridge for pronghorn, had a measured response to the abducted bison calf.

"It just shows how there's such a need for education out there," Hilty says.

Listening to the clear vision and purpose of the Y2Y group is like looking down the pristine length of the Lamar Valley. The only wrinkle in the plan seems to be the different challenges for the Yukon chair members compared to the Yellowstone chair members. The Yukon section of the proposed corridor can focus on preservation of still-open spaces, while the southern section in Yellowstone has the harder challenge of re-establishing corridors and connectivity, which means reaching out to ranchers, hunters, and land developers.

Although ranchers and hunters won't be a challenge for Leikam in the Bay Area, creating a corridor between developed lands definitely will be. Wolves need a much broader range than foxes — tracking the range of the famous female wolf "Pluie" for nine months in 1991 revealed she wandered an area 10 times larger than Yellowstone — but the future of both canine species will be determined by whether or not we decide to coexist with wildlife. Ask any San Francisco dog-walker what they think about coyotes in Golden Gate Park, and the challenges are clear.

E.O. Wilson's study of ants became, ultimately, a study of humans. ("Ants have the most complicated social organization on earth next to humans," he wrote.) And the knowledge of Yellowstone flora and fauna on that butte that we've amassed has inevitably turned toward human behavior, since understanding the instincts and judgments of the world's dominant two-legged species is at the core of everything.

"Yellowstone is a place that tries to let wildlife be wild," Hilty says. "A major focus, then, becomes managing people."

The last 20 years of the Y2Y project has been promising, though, with protected areas increasing from 11 to 21 percent of the Y2Y region.

The alpine sun had risen over the mountains and was beginning to cook. The pups, on instinct, headed back to the cool of the den, leaving the humans scattered on the butte and waiting for a van with lunch. I introduce the idea of traffic, the natural kind of animal traffic I discussed with Leikam at the Jamaican restaurant in Palo Alto. Surprisingly, Yellowstone faces the same kind of bumper-to-bumper traffic this summer that Bay Area residents have grudgingly come to accept.

With the National Park Service celebrating its 100th anniversary in August, all experts are anticipating record crowds at Yellowstone, America's first National Park. Last year, traffic was backed up for three hours at the North Entrance. This year? June visitation was already up by 15 percent. More cars mean more roadkill — and with animals as big as two-ton bison, the carnage might not be limited to the animal kind.

It was getting late. The early afternoon thunderclouds pile up on the horizon. We stand exposed on the butte, waiting for the van, wondering if lightning and thunder are coming our way.

Leikam, understandably, doesn't want to reveal the exact location of where we're standing. The nearby South Bay landmarks are a water treatment plant — where gray foxes have been seen snatching mallards bobbing on the open vat of the tank — a golf course where gray foxes hunt gophers but aren't above stealing Doritos out of golf bags, and a tech company building where Leikam assures worried employees that the foxes warming themselves on the hoods of their cars pose no threat. Not exactly the Lamar Valley, but if you're a gray fox of Silicon Valley, it's a mighty important piece of land.

Other than the fact that Leikam needs state and city permits to enter the area legally, it looks like almost anywhere in the South Bay and its normalcy only makes the world of the fox that much more magical. Once you consider how riddled with nature the urbanized Bay Area is, the place will never look the same.

"This is foxland," Leikam says, with his signature twinkle. And if that wasn't enough to remind me of Middle Earth once again, Leikam's black hat — with its headlamp the size of the Eye of Sauron — clinches it. Leikam explains that the foxes are not nocturnal but crepuscular — meaning they come out at sunset and sunrise — so we have a chance of spotting some of the pups on this mild, late spring day.

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Tom Molanphy

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