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Health, Science, Environment

Bay Area Wildlife Habitats Are Disappearing. Fox Guy Has A Plan.

Almost 90% of the natural landscape along the Bay has been lost to human development. Climate change and sea level rise mean even more of it is going away. So what will happen to the hundreds of wildlife species that live there? Ask the Fox Guy.

Click the play button above to listen to the story.

His name is Bill Leikam. Some people call him the Fox Guy. He’s a sturdy, eighty-year-old man with long grey hair and a short white beard. He wears a worn-in black jacket and matching cowboy hat when we meet in a Palo Alto parking lot around 5 a.m. 

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Credit William C. Leikam
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The Fox Guy, Bill Leikam.

The sun has yet to rise and it's chilly. We start walking.

“Hold it, wait wait wait.” Bill says. “We’ve got a camera right here.” 

With just a few steps we enter a marshland off the San Francisco Bay called the Baylands Nature Preserve. For over 10 years, Bill has navigated the area’s dirt trails and tall wet grasses every single morning before dusk. Each day, he swaps out memory cards from his 11 trail cameras, which have been videoing the scene since nightfall. As he works, he surveys the wildlife. 

“We've got a raccoon coming off the top of the hill right here, and we've got one under the salt bush right over here,” Bill points into the darkness. “Good morning, good morning!” he says to the raccoons. “That’s Mama,” he tells me. “There’s your first introduction to the wildlife out here.” It didn’t take long.

Becoming The Fox Guy

We trapped quite a few of them and then one of them got a broken leg. That hit me hard. I told my brother, I said, 'We're not going to trap anymore.'

Bill is not a scientist by training. But with his cameras, he has produced one of the world’s largest libraries of footage documenting the elusive grey fox. He’s been called the Jane Goodall of the grey fox world. It’s an obsession he comes by honestly.

"When I was about 13 or 14 years old, I came upon my very first grey fox," Bill explains. "My brother and I decided at that young age to trap the foxes. We trapped quite a few of them and then one of them got a broken leg," Bill pauses. "I don't know, that just hit me hard. I told my brother, I said 'We're not going to trap anymore.'"

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Credit William C. Leikam
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A fox family in Baylands: pup Dark Face (upper right), adult Creek (lower right looking up), Little One (left) and Helper (far left).

Bill didn’t think of foxes again for fifty years. Then one day in 2009, he was birding out in the Baylands.

“I saw this fox sitting beside the road. It just was automatic. It just grabbed me,” he says. “From that day on, I came back again and again and again.” Soon, he found three grey foxes. “I said, whoa, I've discovered a family!”

The Die Out

The grey fox is the oldest canine in the world — older than wolves, coyotes, and every other species in the dog family. They’ve been on Earth for 10 million years, and in the Bay Area far longer than any human. They’re smaller than the better-known red fox, with hooked claws, a long pointed muzzle, and salt and pepper fur that turns orange at the shoulders and ears.

We lost 25 foxes to canine distemper.

There were more than two dozen grey foxes in the area when Bill was reacquainted with them over a decade ago. By 2016, he was counting carcasses instead of foxes. 

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Credit William C. Leikam
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Mama Bold sitting upper as her mate Gray nuzzles her chin. Both died in the 2016 canine distemper die out in the Baylands Nature Preserve.

“Two of the longest standing died right in here,” Bill says, motioning to an area off the trail. “That was Mama Bold and her mate Gray. We lost 25 foxes to canine distemper.”

Canine distemper is a viral disease that affects some canines. In the Baylands, Bill says it’s a symptom of a bigger issue: Lost habitat. Decades of urban development has cut up wildlife territory into small, overcrowded patches where disease spreads fast.

It’s a problem all around the Bay. City sprawl and busy roads trap animals so they can’t move from one patch of habitat to the next. Over one hundred local species are threatened or endangered. Many because they’ve simply lost the space they need to survive. 

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Credit Urban Wildlife Research Project
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Urban Wildlife Research Project
The Urban Wildlife Research Project's vision of a San Francisco Bay Area Wildlife Corridor would enhance existing pathways that animals already use, including creeks.

But Bill believes that cities can support wildlife, with urban planning that keeps nature in mind. He wants to connect habitat patches, to help animals navigate safely from the shore, through cities, and out to the spacious surrounding mountains.

It’s a goal of his nonprofit, the Urban Wildlife Research Project, to create what he calls the San Francisco Bay Area Wildlife Corridor. It would reach throughout the entire Bay Area and benefit all sorts of wildlife, including the grey fox.

After the canine distemper die out, Bill continued to tape the Baylands’ trails. For two years, not a single grey fox was spotted. The rodent population exploded.

Foxes Return To The Baylands

A new fox couple found their way into the Baylands in 2018. Bill named them Leimos and Big Eyes. Leimos runs up to Bill, while Big Eyes hangs back in the brush.

“Leimos means long neck in Greek,” Bill explains. “He’s not as skittish as she is.”

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Credit William C. Leikam
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A new fox couple in the Baylands. Big Eyes standing over her mate Leimos lying on a branch.

I'm thinking that there's something wrong in the reproductive system, something is not right, because they should have had pups.

We duck under tree branches and move deeper into the woods. Bill calls the foxes bush dogs because they prefer shrub covered territory. 

“This area is the heart of foxland,” he says.

Right now, it’s home to just Leimos and Big Eyes. 

“And I'm thinking that there's something wrong in the reproductive system, something is not right, because they should have had pups.”

It’s another sign of an unhealthy habitat.

The foxes disappear as soon as the sun peeks through the trees. Bill and I head back to the car. And he gets a bit philosophical.

“The foxes are my professors. Okay. They are the ones who have taught me and I'm their student.”

An Alarming Update

When I came upon that particular one, I went 'whoa, wait a minute, what's that?' And I zoomed in to take a closer look at her eye.

I caught up with Bill on video chat a few months later. I wanted to find out about a disturbing image of Big Eyes that he posted on his blog.

“I was tagging all the images out of the camera,” Bill tells me over Zoom. “And when I came upon that particular one, I went 'whoa, wait a minute, what's that?' And I zoomed in to take a closer look at her eye.”

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Credit William C. Leikam
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In October of 2020, Bill discovers that something is wrong with Big Eyes. He believes it could be canine distemper.

“I have seen so much of that discharge from the eyes and canine distemper that it was just, oh my god. Here's another one. Here we go again,” he says, exasperated.

“I've learned something about all of this, and that's how to let go. Although I get to know the foxes pretty well in terms of their personalities, there comes a point where you have to, well, when the young ones disperse, they're there one day and they're gone the next you have no idea where they are. So you have to let go. So if Leimos and Big Eyes die, that's the way it is. I have to move on.” 

Rising sea level is going to push the wildlife deeper and deeper into the cities along the San Francisco Bay.

For Bill, moving on means focusing on preserving and connecting the remaining patches of habitat, which he says continue to be eaten away by the effects of climate change. If current predictions hold, the Baylands Preserve could be underwater by midcentury. 

“Rising sea level is going to push the wildlife deeper and deeper into the cities along the San Francisco Bay. People in their backyards are going to begin to see more raccoons, more possums, more skunks, more foxes. What are they going to do?” 

After centuries of building and designing for humans, the Bay Area may soon have no choice but to plan for its wildlife too. Luckily, that could lead to greener, more livable cities for both animals and people.