Palo Alto, California, USA

Bill Leikam, Urban Wildlife Research Project

In spring, with the rain, the dry landscape turns into a lush green, and everything comes alive. Around the concrete overflow channel, the pickleweed grows red and the wildlife are busy taking care of their newborn. This is the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve: a semi-urban patch of marshland amidst the highways, neighborhoods and tech empires of the San Francisco Bay Area. Here, Bill Leikam studies the behaviour of the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus townsendi).

The gray fox is the most basal canine, the «original dog»: It has evolved over eight to twelve million years, which makes it far older than the jackal, the wolf, and all other canids. Since it cannot breed with any other canine on the planet, when one sees a gray fox, they are looking at a genetic lineage that remains unaltered for, on average, ten million years.

Bill Leikam has dedicated 12 years of his life to understanding these fascinating animals. From the moment that he saw his first gray fox along an old dirt road over a decade ago, he was compelled to revisit the location. It wasn’t long before he began jotting down notes on the foxes’ behavior. Soon he discovered that each of them had its own personality and so, instead of a scientific designation, he gave each one a name. As the animals became accustomed to him, they grew comfortable in his presence and the young ones, out of sheer curiosity, began to follow him around sometimes.

Finally, in 2013, he and ecologist and videographer Greg Kerekes founded the Urban Wildlife Research Project (UWRP). The UWRP relies on an array of 15 camera traps to monitor the foxes’ behaviors at night. Since they are crepuscular, meaning that they are out during early evenings and through dawn, Bill can also directly observe and document their behavior. Ultimately, UWRP’s goal is to ensure that all animals living in the baylands have healthy places to live.

In theory, the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve is an ideal habitat for the gray fox. There are patches of small brushy areas with limited riparian habitat, and trees for the foxes to climb. But here, as everywhere, climate change is a factor. Whilst it is normal that the lush green of spring fades to a sienna-colored brown during summer, in recent years the vegetation has started to change. The past several winters have been drier than before and although the winter of 2022/23 has seen one of its wettest years in several decades, the baylands are now in drought conditions. Such draughts present serious long-term changes that have only just begun.

The wildlife of Silicon Valley face yet another challenge. As the urban areas grow, streets and highways are being built. This impacts their habitat which is becoming increasingly fragmented. This fragmentation has drastic consequences: In 2016, all 25 gray foxes of the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve died due to a highly contagious disease called canine distemper. Two years and one month passed before a new fox couple, Laimos and Big Eyes, showed up in the area and claimed the territory as their own. At first, Bill hoped that the two would have pups, but sadly that is not the case as it appears as if the couple are sterile.

To prevent the die-out from 2016 from happening again, the Urban Wildlife Research Project is developing a restoration plan that will link habitat patches along an approximately 20-mile stretch beside San Francisco Bay. The bay area wildlife corridor will increase the health of the wildlife and it will create a biodiverse expanse of lush habitat along the way.

In the meantime, there is still a lot of work to be done for the UWRP. Presently, Bill Leikam visits the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve every morning before sunrise and every evening to service the array of camera traps in the field, and to observe the animals he has come to know so well.