The Unlikely Refuge for the West’s Most Adorable and Endangered Fox

San Joaquin kit foxes are thriving in California’s oil capital, and as the drought worsens, these urban pioneers just might save the species from extinction.
(Photo: Kevin Schafer/Getty)
Dec 15, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Peter Fairley is an optimist who writes about climate change and the energy innovations that can stop it.

Drought and development are decimating the San Joaquin kit fox. But the imperiled, pint-size predator has found a surprising sanctuary: Bakersfield, the honky-tonk California oil patch famous for being the hometown of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

This fast-growing city’s irrigated golf links, school campuses, and roadside greenways are providing an unlikely urban redoubt for the cat-size foxes—one that may save the species from extinction.

“They’re living on golf courses and eating junk food,” said Ileene Anderson, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.,–based environmental organization. “Virtually every golf course has a kit fox family living on it.”

The federally protected subspecies of the kit fox once ranged across California’s Central Valley south of Sacramento. But farming and development has left as few as 3,000 of the nocturnal carnivores, which occupy remnants of native grassland habitat. Now drought is squeezing the life out of those lands.

Bakersfield’s kit foxes have earned a following among residents, notwithstanding a recent editorial in The Bakersfield Californian calling out the kit fox and other endangered species as costly impediments to farmers and developers. Kit foxes are considerate neighbors as wildlife go; they don’t spill trash cans like raccoons do or prey on pets as coyotes do, and their bark is as quiet as it is rare.

Protecting endangered species is the law, but protecting kit foxes has also become a habit in Bakersfield. The city’s school district keeps soccer goal nets and other webbing stowed when not in use to prevent entanglement of kit foxes. The Seven Oaks Country Club flags kit fox dens and asks its members to leave them be—even when the creatures get mischievous and steal away with an errant ball or nick a snack from a golf bag.

Students at California State University, Bakersfield, gushed for kit foxes when the local ABC affiliate reported on the campus’ colony earlier this year.

“They’re adorable little creatures,” said Justin Gant, a recent CSUB grad, imitating a mother’s warning bark to students who come too close to her den. “It was the first time that I got to hear one bark. It was like an ‘ar-ar-ark,’ and it was the cutest thing to see her protect her little pups.”

Student Dominic Olivo admitted that he couldn’t resist feeding them—a definite no-no: “If I have a granola bar or something like that, I’ll just throw a little piece,” he said.

The town foxes’ easy living marks a striking difference with their country brethren, who are facing dire straits.

Robert Stafford, an environmental scientist with California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, has documented the ecological fallout hitting kit foxes at the Carrizo Plains National Monument west of Bakersfield—a 246,812-acre protected preserve within the state’s largest remaining native grassland.

Carrizo’s kit fox population is one of three main groups left in wild areas, and it has free-fallen more than 90 percent since the last significant rain in 2011.

While the plain is normally arid, Stafford noted it was particularly bleak when he last flew over the area in August. “It was blowing sand and dirt,” he said. “There was almost no primary vegetative production this past year.”

Kit foxes are carnivores, but such vegetative burnout trickles down fast. In the wilderness, kit foxes survive primarily on small mammals, such as the region’s equally endangered giant kangaroo rat. Periods of sustained drought wipe out the rats’ stores of seeds, and as the rats decline, so too do the kit foxes.

Roughly 50 giant kangaroo rats per acre covered the Carrizo Plain in 2011, supporting what Stafford and his colleagues estimated to be a population of 771 kit foxes. By this fall, in contrast, kangaroo rats numbered barely one per acre, and the kit fox population had plummeted to just 64—the lowest since Stafford’s agency started tracking Carrizo’s kit foxes in the 1970s.

Carrizo’s kit foxes could bounce back quickly if rain returns, because giant kangaroo rats are—like their urban cousins—quick to reproduce. The El Niño likely to develop this winter should help.

If the drought continues, though, biologists see an imminent risk of some kit fox populations winking out within a year or two.

Brian Cypher, a leading kit fox expert and associate director of the Endangered Species Recovery Program at nearby California State University, Stanislaus, is concerned about an enclave that recently numbered 50 to 100 animals near the Kern National Wildlife Refuge, northwest of Bakersfield. “It’s an island of habitat completely surrounded by agriculture,” said Cypher.

Genetic isolation is a growing problem as privately held habitat is converted to almond and pistachio groves and other agricultural uses, chopping up what’s left of the native grasslands. “We’re still losing several thousand acres a year on average,” he said.

That increasing vulnerability of wildland kit foxes shines a brighter light on the 200 to 400 kit foxes estimated to be living the good life in bustling Bakersfield. Twenty years ago, researchers believed urban kit foxes were an anomaly. “People thought they were stragglers displaced by development that just hadn’t died or moved out yet,” said Cypher.

The local rules that govern their protection reflect that view. The Metropolitan Bakersfield Habitat Conservation Plan, a program crafted by the city and Kern Country and approved by state and federal wildlife agencies in 1994, allowed urban sprawl to continue on lands used by urban kit foxes, just charging developers a fee to finance the protection of natural habitat outside the city.

But in the intervening years, biologists have documented the city foxes’ stable population and high reproductive rates. Females produce litters every year, irrespective of the weather. Their success may lead them to play a conservation role for the subspecies. If drought or disease kills off kit foxes on native habitat, urban kit foxes could be tapped to repopulate the area.

“It’s a hedge against catastrophic events in the natural lands,” said Cypher.

That perspective is informing the renegotiation of Bakersfield’s habitat conservation plan, which expired this year. Getting a new plan in place is expected to take several more years, but state and federal wildlife officials already agreed to interim guidelines that include stronger protections for the urban kit foxes.

Developers must still pay a $2,145-per-acre fee under the plan. But now they must also survey their acreage for kit foxes and other protected species before construction begins and show that they are taking steps to minimize harm to any of the animals present.

There are no plans yet to relocate any of Bakersfield’s kit foxes, but that could change fast—within the course of a single year, according to Cypher. He and his students have already begun to track the urban kit fox traits, such as boldness and willingness to try novel foods, that might identify ideal candidates. “We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve...instead of waiting for things to get critical,” said Cypher.