Kit Foxes Carve Out A Niche In An Unlikely Locale

By Heidi Ridgley
SOME WILDLIFE biologists must slog through swamps, crawl through prickly underbrush or sit patiently in extreme temperatures in hopes of getting a glimpse of the elusive creature they’re trying to study.

Not Brian Cypher, a biologist tracking the federally endangered San Joaquin kit fox in California. For him, it’s as simple as setting up some cages near the ninth hole at the Seven Oaks Country Club in Bakersfield—right next to a sign that reads “kit fox habitat”—and in the animals go, lured by hot dogs and bacon bits.

“The foxes love to dig holes in fairways,” says Cypher, pointing to the lush, manicured grass.

The country club has embraced the foxes, so much so that when workers noticed them hanging around, club officials allowed Cypher and his team from the Endangered Species Recovery Program (a cooperative project between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [FWS] and the Bureau of Reclamation, administered by California State University at Stanislaus) to install artificial burrows. The housecat- sized foxes—a subspecies of kit fox and the smallest canid in North America—took to the burrows almost immediately.

The dozen or so kit foxes that now roam the fairways at Seven Oaks— mostly after dark, when these nocturnal animals do their hunting and scavenging— are among a few hundred foxes that improbably inhabit Bakersfield, CA’s 11th largest city. That these rare animals have found a niche in this bustling metropolis is a mixed blessing.

Some conservationists worry they are drawing attention away from retaining what little is left of the animals’ historical habitat in outlying areas. Yet, the Bakersfield population is a boon for researchers trying to figure out which individuals would make the best candidates for
relocation and reintroduction into their natural environment, where fewer than 3,000 probably still exist.

Of course, the two caged foxes who are about to get poked and prodded on the golf course this morning— an adult and a pup—don’t realize it’s for their own good and the good of their species. But they also don’t protest too much. A few slaps to the top of the cage and the pup shoots straight into the denim bag attached like a chute to the cage opening.

The adult hisses, makes a noise akin to a quack, half-heartedly lunges at Cypher through the bars, changes his mind and then darts into the bag. A quick twist and the bags are shut and carried to tarps spread out on the turf.

“We don’t have to drug them this way,” says Cypher. “And then there’s no worry they’ll stumble into a dog, the street or a pond before it wears off. We just use manual restraint with the bag and only expose the part we need. Kits are naturally kind of docile and usually there’s barely a struggle.”

The biologists go to work, running their gloveless hands along each bag in search of a fox’s rear end. Simultaneously kneeling down with the upper half of the animals’ bodies tucked between their thighs, each biologist exposes a fox’s posterior and plucks some hair for DNA sampling. Then each bag is turned again and out pops a head held firmly by the neck. The biologists add an ear tag, check for fleas and get a tissue sample from the ear for further DNA testing.

Finally, the pup gets a radio collar. That’s when he’s had enough and begins a slow growl. When it crescendos in an open-mouth hiss, in goes a long, wooden dowel to keep his mouth pried open. Everyone leans forward to examine his teeth while the young fox’s eyes, which look like shiny pools of liquid ebony outlined in kohl—pigmentation that protects him against the fierce desert sun—dart from face to face.

“They look good,” says Cypher. The adult’s also appear none the worse for wear.

“His teeth don’t look as lived in as his ears and face,” says Samantha Bremner-Harrison, a biologist on the team who is applying her doctoral research on swift fox behavior to the recovery of its slightly smaller cousin.

And then it’s over. The pup is deposited from the bag directly into the artificial den, an inconspicuous grass mound about 2 feet high with a 6-inch-wide opening supported by plastic tubing.

The adult is released to the open. “We’re not sure if this is his den,” says Bremner- Harrison. The fox hesitates. His bushy, tapered tail—at 10 inches it’s as long as the rest of his body—is larger than a puffed out housecat’s. Then he disappears down the same hole as the pup.
Bremner-Harrison picks up the leftover hotdogs and drops them in after him. “It’ll be their reward,” she says.

The kit fox’s natural diet consists of rabbits, kangaroo rats, insects, mice and cactus fruits. But in the city, the sky’s the limit. One golf course burrow entrance is strewn with a burrito wrapper, a packet of ranch dressing, pieces of bird and tamale husks. Inside the den, a tunnel may stretch as long as 5 ft. before ending in a chamber.

“Often they take the easy route and take over a ground squirrel burrow, expand exploratory holes that badgers have dug or take over a giant kangaroo rat’s abode—after they’ve eaten the occupant,” says Cypher. “But they can dig dens themselves and be amazingly rapid about it. It’s not unusual for a den to appear overnight on a construction site.”

In fact, Bakersfield residents who keep their eyes peeled can see the little foxes so often that they might find it hard to believe that the San Joaquin kit fox is an endangered species, says Cypher. But that these stragglers survive here is more happenstance than anything else.

As desert-adapted animals with pale, thick, fur coats that insulate against both heat and cold, the foxes prefer dry, open habitat—much like what surrounded Bakersfield until the middle of last century. As their native habitat has been converted to farms, factories and housing, the kits have been forced to find open spaces within the city—claiming not only a golf course, but a college campus and even a narrow grass meridian in the parking lot of an oil company’s headquarters.

“The worry, though, is that in such close quarters all you need is a strain of distemper to run through the population and it can be decimated,” says Kim Delfino, Defenders’ California program director. “We need to build strong populations elsewhere if the kit fox is to survive.”