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Wednesday, Aug 10 2016

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"Secondary poisoning is increasing and occurring with small-to-large mammals all over the country," Leikam says. "It takes almost two days for the poison to kill the rat. Meanwhile, it's wandering around a field like a zombie, easy pickings for owls or hawks or a fox that needs to feed a litter."

Two of the foxes that Leikam and Kereke observe lost their entire litter last year, and one plausible explanation is that a parent unknowingly fed the pups a poisoned rat. Poison may seem effective for rat control until you consider the hunting ability of a bird-of-prey.

"A single barn owl can clear out at least six mice a night," Leikam says. "I really doubt one of those poison traps can do that."

By the time our table is littered with empty plates, it all seems to come down to a redefinition of the word "traffic." Not the bumper-to-bumper kind that induces road rage and contributes to global warming, but the natural kind that foxes are only a small part of. This Bay Area traffic jam includes bobcats, ground squirrels, raccoons, coyotes, and pumas. While the table regards with some skepticism the recently proposed reintroduction of the grizzly bear into that mix, the focus is not just on land mammals, but covers the massive bird and fish migrations that make the Bay Area one of the most vibrant urban ecosystems in the world. Throw in the vast, almost inconceivably complex system of bugs, bacteria, and germs both above and below the ground, and the roar of the traffic is deafening.

In Leikam's company, the world becomes as complex as we choose to believe.

Conversations in Yellowstone are as otherworldly as Yellowstone itself.

"The golden eagle is on the ground to the right of the pronghorn antelope but not as far as the wolf den," someone calls out from behind one of the 60x zoom Nikon and Leica scopes that the Yellowstone to Yukon Project (Y2Y), has set up.

More than 900 miles east and 6,000 feet above Bill Leikam's foxes reside Yellowstone's infamous Lamar Valley wolves, the most-analyzed wolf packs in the world. We're waiting for some of the Junction Butte pack, comprised of 10 adults and nine pups, to emerge from their den and into their territory, which ranges all the way to Hellroaring Creek, more than a mile-and-a-half away.

The bison that would have recycled my rented Toyota Yaris in a collision are now dots on the expansive floor of the Lamar Valley. With the 40-mile-long Lamar River providing water and enough golden grass to make the terrain seem like a bread basket, the Lamar Valley is the premier spot for viewing Yellowstone's wildlife. Although it's as far from Silicon Valley as it looks, it's also the best place to study the idea of natural corridors and the necessary connectivity of species on a grand scale.

The flat butte from which we're peering into the valley is covered with a dozen Y2Y experts on natural corridors. It's a challenge to keep one eye trained on the wildlife through the telescope and both ears on the conversations detailing the million-year-old biological system spread out before us.

"What we want to avoid is the archipelago of Africa," says Dr. Bill Weber, a man so big and bearded he'd make me double-check the bear spray on my belt if he weren't so friendly. Weber is one of several Y2Y board members who pops between telescopes to grab sight of the bison, antelope, grizzlies, and other big game that earned the Lamar Valley the title of "Serengeti of the Americas."

"What we want to avoid in Y2Y is the archipelago of isolated island parks found in comparable regions of Africa," Weber says.

He knows what he's talking about: In the 1970s and '80s, he helped protect endangered mountain gorillas and their forest habitats in the mountains of east-central Africa. "The parks in that landscape are wonderful, but they're all islands: disconnected from one another, with permanently isolated wildlife populations," Weber explains, echoing Leikam's same worry about his isolated foxes.

A squeal of excitement near a scope announces that the wolves are out — with their pups, which are already larger than Leikam's foxes. The wolf parents, close to three feet at the shoulder and averaging nearly 120 pounds, yawn and stretch outside their burrow as the young ones tumble on the hill in the early-morning sun.

The reintroduction of these wolves is considered a triumph of humanity's efforts to re-establish sensible systems we botched up in the first place. Since wolves were long-considered vermin — no better than the rats fed rodenticide in Silicon Valley — Yellowstone's wolves were poisoned out of the valley and driven to near-extinction by the early 20th century.

With a major predator gone, the ecosystem failed as sure as a collapsing hard drive. The elk population soared, which led to overgrazed and trampled land, which then led to erosion into streams, which then affected fish, which then affected the bears. Quammen's Persian rug had begun to unravel.

"There were almost 20,000 elk by the mid-'90s, definitely way too much, and as many as 3,000 were starving to death during the winter," says Kira Cassidy, the group's wolf expert. Cassidy explains that the re-introduction of wolves — which did not please ranchers around the Yellowstone area — led to a smaller (but more sustainable) number of elk, and that did not please hunters in the area, either. The large population of coyotes in Yellowstone that had enjoyed being at the top of the food chain for awhile learned to mind the wolves, too. But the competition for food and space in the ecosystem established a much healthier balance, as well as clear signs of the interdependence of the species.


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Tom Molanphy


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