Imagine, for every living specie there has to be a story of adaptation for each one. How else have they persisted through millions of years, eons of climate change, vegetative succession, loss of habitat, ten times the CO2 we have today and other environmental shifts? Yet somehow we have allowed our legislators and regulators, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to invent ideological constructs like “endangered species” to get around Constitutional law, never recognizing natural processes like adaptation. Take the San Joaquin kitfox, another so-called “endangered species.”
This story begins on the arid east slope of the San Luis Obispo range near the small oil town of Taft, Calif. in 2002. Small is a relative term, I mean a tiny town with one coffee shop, one Chinese restaurant, a six-room adobe motel circa 1930 and a couple dozen little houses. Taft is only about 30 miles southwest of Bakersfield as the crow flies, but the sun-scorched barren hills behind this tiny town seemed light years away from the blue marble of planet Earth.
Three biologists, including myself from the California Department of Food and Agriculture Sacramento headquarters were conducting a follow-up survey for a remnant population of camel thorn. A highly invasive spiky little shrub probably introduced with oil drilling equipment from perhaps as far away as the Arabian Peninsula. In the Middle East camel thorn and its variants are considered “manna” and I guess anything green in the desert of Arabia might be considered manna, but in California it’s at the top of the list for eradication.
So here we were, hiking grid pattern style on this parched sand swept ridge looking not unlike survivors of Lawrence of Arabia’s last charge, minus the camels. With rags tucked under our hats to keep the blistering sun off our neck and ears, we resolved to eradicate this thorny pest, the only known location in the entire west. However, while searching for this target weed we also kept one eye peeled for any sign of the infamous little fox, tracks, scat, maybe a hole in the ground, anything that might indicate his presence in this ancient habitat. Identifying fox habitat by counting roadkill along highways is often a clue to a particular population, a tool if you will, but designated habitat such as the Taft area piqued my interest to discover one of these elusive icons of the valley.
The hours passed slowly, really slowly like Moses leading his people but alas the long hot day was waning, the cooler breeze of evening found us checking off sections of map as we bumped along the wheat colored dusty road towards civilization … and a cool shower. Not finding any camel thorn was a good thing, but my disappointment at not finding any sign of kitfox quickly evaporated with thoughts of spicy pork cutlets and plum sauce.
An hour later, showered and starving we were back in the front seat of the pickup refreshed and ready to consume this Chinese place. As we pulled into the rear parking lot surrounded by ornamental shrubbery, we suddenly froze in our seats! Like the Earth was standing still just for this moment, there in front of us perfectly bathed in our headlights was he, him, it, the unmistakable profile of a San Joaquin kitfox, bottle-brush tail and giant ears looking at us looking at him. Someone uttered a sexual metaphor, then poof, like the ghost that he is, he disappeared into the bushes.
Later we conjectured, why not? This is the perfect habitat, no coyotes to worry about, a veritable buffet of catfood, dogfood and water at most every backdoor; indeed why not? This tiny fox, not much bigger than a house cat, has a perfect hideout here in the day and roams the neighborhood at night never seen and never heard. No wonder it’s classified as an “endangered species,” but where there’s smoke there’s fire and one must wonder just how many of these clever nocturnals are living amongst us … and not where the FWS and the CDFW say they are. Anyway, what canny little dirt-dweller is going to resist the savory scent of “full moon and seven stars” with sizzling rice on an evening breeze?
OK, so this may be a story of adaptation and perhaps a story of animal habit as well, but it’s more than that really. It’s a story of government perception.
This is just one example where a species’ biological parameters are based on assumptions, then become doctrine in government literature, then work their way into planning strategies and regulations — never considering the ability or desire of wildlife wanting to adapt to human activity. Just because the kitfox, like the mountain lion, fisher, wolverine and many other solitary, secretive and elusive animals may be hard to find, and leave little evidence of their population, doesn’t mean they are “endangered.” Rare maybe, but the term endangered is often a misnomer, and in many cases an outright fabrication. Oh, and the rare and “endangered” fisher? They love chicken coops, but that’s another story.
Rod Kerr is retired with 30 years of service at the California Department of Food Agriculture and with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.