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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
He initially counted five pups in the most recent litter, about two months ago, but one is missing, and so is their mother.
“Mama hasn’t been around since last week, so there’s more work for Gray, the father” Leikam says. He hopes we can spot the whole family today.
The first stop on our half-mile loop is a thicket around a bend in the generous trail. This is where, seven years ago, Bill Leikam the amateur birder became Bill “Fox Guy” Leikam when the Bullock’s Oriole he had been following led him here.
“There was a fox sitting right there,” Leikam remembers, pointing to a spot in the trail. “I was able to approach within 20 feet, even taking pictures. I still didn’t believe in it when it left, though.”
So he came back the next day, and the next, and the next day after that, rolling out a stump from the brush so he could sit and watch the foxes — and becoming, as Charles Darwin put it, “a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions.”
The first sign of the pups, fitting with their urban habitat, is a white van barreling toward us, with a county worker waving his iPhone out the window.
“The pups are playing on the pile again,” the man tells Leikam, showing the pictures. Although he was middle-aged with slicked black hair and some wicked wrap-around sunglasses, he sounded as giddy as a 12-year-old.
Leikam thanks the city worker for the tip. We leave the dirt road and cut through a grove of eucalyptus, the roar of trucks getting louder and my belief that wildlife could be anywhere near quickly fading. Yellowstone wolves would be miles from this kind of urban din.
But there they are: four pups, rolling on top of dirt mounds in broad daylight. No scopes necessary, but they seem too clear and too close to be real. They eye us warily for a few seconds but then send more yawns than attention our way for the 10 minutes that Leikam takes his pictures. No sign of the father or mother, but he assures me their ever-stalwart father, Gray, is nearby. It reminds me of the point a Yellowstone ranger had made about mountain lions: The reason we don’t see mountain lions is because they see us first.
We stand and observe, the four urban fox pups frolicking less than 20 feet away, a far cry from the 200-yard buffer visitors are expected to give the wild wolves in the Lamar Valley. Since Gray foxes are the only canines with the ability to climb trees, the biggest pup, the alpha, practices climbing on the slippery bark of a eucalyptus limb while the younger brothers yip below in admiration, jealousy, or both. We stay quiet, mostly, but also discuss what Silicon Valley pups and Lamar Valley wolves could mean to the world.
One argument Leikam makes for maintaining a natural corridor is that, without it, the fox could go the way of the raccoon, a species Santa Cruz wildlife biologist Tanya Diamond dubbed the “mafia of the natural world.”
I agree. I once met three raccoons in San Francisco’s Sunset District on the wrong side of midnight. They didn’t budge, and when the leader reared up on its hind legs and hissed, I resisted the urge to drop my wallet and run.
Although continued funding for natural corridors and overall connectivity are challenges for both Leikam and Y2Y, changing perceptions is even bigger. As long as the bulk of humanity believes that ground is better off covered by concrete, or that the sea is OK as a large toilet, or that the air is too invisible to really worry about, science becomes moot, and even money loses its power.
In the Bay Area, at least, a rejuvenated fox population comes without the anxieties of a human population boom: The foxes are not coming for our jobs, they will not raise our rents, they will not add road rage to Highway 101, and they won’t even be that one extra annoying person in line at our favorite breakfast spot.
“It’s really about having compassion for these fellow creatures,” Leikam says. “A lot of people hear the word ‘wild’ and equate that with ‘danger.’ Gray foxes are skittish and will run for cover before they will ever attack.”
The pups suddenly turn toward the eucalyptus grove, ears up and alert. Three dive into the brush, and we follow at distance. What we find is confirmation of a behavior Leikam has long suspected but never witnessed.
Gray, a larger and more handsome version of his pups, is back with a tree squirrel in his mouth. When Gray drops the kill, the the alpha pup grabs the squirrel and growls if any of his siblings comes close. While he feeds on the squirrel, the others wait patiently.
“That’s why he’s the biggest. He gets the food first, and most of it,” Leikam says.
We continue on the trail that becomes a wider dirt road running north to Redwood City and Facebook — where Leikam helped elevate the foxes to rock star status on the tech giant’s campus — and Moffett Field to the south. A dump that was recently capped rises along the road. Leikam says El Niño rains wore a hole through the earthen cap, opening up a several-hundred-foot drop into a world of human waste more frightening than anything we’ve discussed. Plans for a trail will run on top of the capped dump and will most likely bring more traffic to this area.
One recent challenge to this fragile fox ecosystem was the 2014 proposal of a large aerobic digester, which would suck up 10 acres, including the den we just left. Santa Clara County shelved the project because it couldn’t nail down the exact cost. But because the digester was part of a voter-passed measure, it could be tried again.
Leikam points out one of his cameras on the side of an animal trail, set up to catch the foxes in their habitat. The Reconix/Ultrafire is a designated night-vision camera that costs upward of $700. But the pictures he’s caught, including one of a mother in labor, are well worth it.
The road straightens out and heads due south, a long line disappearing into the Santa Cruz mountains in the distance. Leikam stops and points down the empty road.
“This is the main artery of the natural corridor,” he says.
Unlike the vast amount of space and broader connectivity that the Yellowstone wolves need, the urban gray foxes can survive using a narrow corridor to the Santa Cruz Mountains, where they’ll head in October during a “dispersal” that prevents inbreeding and keeps the gene pool broad, deep and healthy. Leikam hopes to raise several thousand dollars for DNA testing, and there are also plans for radio-collaring the foxes to determine exactly how far they travel.
It’s time to head back, and every step is a hard exit from this strange, ignored world. We pass something on the ground, and I ask Leikam what it is.
“It’s fox scat,” he replies.
Pen and notebook in hand, I wait for some scientific analysis. What gave it away? Duck feathers? Squirrel fur? Dorito crumbs?
He looked at the scat for a moment, then me for a moment longer. “I saw Gray drop that this morning,” he says.
It’s then that I realize what’s important to Bill Leikam. He doesn’t want people to know the plain facts about the gray foxes, which are available on Wikipedia. He wants us to believe in the world of the foxes, a belief that will probably rely more on compassion than on science. The tourists who picked up that Yellowstone bison calf had compassion, which is the one aspect of that stunt which should not be ridiculed.
We pass by the den once more, and Leikam adds to his collection of fox pup pictures. He’ll be back again tomorrow, bright and early, hoping that fifth pup and its mother has returned.
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