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Outfoxing climate change: Endangered species provides lesson in biodiversity

Endangered Central Valley species provides lesson in biodiversity
Endangered Central Valley species provides lesson in biodiversity 03:30

BAKERSFIELD -- An endangered species of fox that has surfaced on a Central Valley college campus is providing proof that one of the biggest weapons against climate change is maintaining biodiversity of the planet.

Early morning, as the sun rises at Cal State University Bakersfield, it's quiet. But when night falls, it can get a little wild, as in "wildlife."

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Researchers in the biology department puncture a can of cat food, and then secure it with a stake in the ground. Overnight, the camera records all the wildlife that sniffs out the can and tries to dislodge it.

Some of the critters that come by to lick the can are common to the area: such as skunks, opossums, feral cats, and raccoons. But one species raised some eyebrows: the San Joaquin kit fox. The tiny fox is an endangered under both California and federal law.

"I think we're all very surprised to see the kit fox is doing so well in urban areas," noted scientist Abigail Gwinn from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Gwinn is the unit biologist for Kern County and specializes in endangered species.

Gwinn said since the late 1960s, the number of San Joaquin kit foxes has dramatically declined, partly due to habitat loss. These creatures once thrived in the grasslands across the Central Valley. Experts believe climate change will threaten even more loss.

But a video provided to CBS News Bay Area by parking officer Mechelle Kenison tells a hopeful story. In the clip, a litter of healthy kit fox pups is seen playing around their mother, having the time of their lives. 

"It seems like they really like school campuses," laughed Gwinn.

The San Joaquin kit fox now calls CSUB their home.

"For better or for worse, CSUB -- our campus -- seems to be a little kit fox factory," remarked Dr. Lucas Hall.

Hall is a conservation biologist at the university. The scientist and his team made an eye-opening discovery. On the campus, the kit fox is sharing burrow space with other wild animals, including one of their favorite foods – the California ground squirrel.

"It is kind of surprising when you think here on campus, we have ground squirrels that we have evidence of using kit fox burrows. There're cats that are using those burrows; opossums, raccoons, skunks. I mean, it's crazy," exclaimed Hall.

But this "sharing" of spaces has created an unusual situation. The number of squirrels has exploded. And they're ripping up the landscape and creating hazardous potholes on the campus.

The ground staff decided to fumigate what they thought were squirrel dens. That plan left some students fuming.

"We are the only university that has endangered San Joaquin kit foxes living on it," explained graduate student Megan Boozer

"They didn't really know which were squirrel dens or kit fox dens," added biology student Francisco Ponce.

Ponce and Boozer are charter members of "The San Joaquin Kit Fox Society." On campus, the society gathered nearly 2,000 signatures to stop the fumigation. There is also an online petition.

The university has since discontinued the fumigation program and proclaimed its unwavering support for the endangered fox.

"It's exciting. It's not all doom and gloom. It's like, 'Oh wow! We could really do a lot!'" said Boozer.

Biodiversity is one of the greatest weapons to fight the impacts of climate change. But one United Nations report estimates up to 1 million species are in danger of extinction.

The San Joaquin Kit fox may have a fighting chance.

Currently, according to the CDFW, there are fewer than 7,000 San Joaquin kit foxes. They were recently threatened by life-threatening mange which is a highly contagious infection.

The campus is now home to 70 kit fox dens, with 37 foxes at last count.

Hall is inspired to see the next generation get involved. After all, he notes, it's about their future. 

"There's hope, that if we do the right thing now and we work together we can make a difference," he concluded.

Cal State University Bakersfield released the below statement regarding the preservation of the San Joaquin kit fox:

The protection of the San Joaquin kit fox population is essential to California State University, Bakersfield's longstanding efforts to protect the biodiversity and ecosystem of our campus. Students, faculty, staff and university leadership work together to make CSUB a sustainable campus. To that end, we continue to partner with California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has offered guidance and support over the years. We also work with leading consultants to ensure that we are prioritizing the needs and safety of the San Joaquin kit fox when conducting maintenance and other activities on our campus.

In addition, CSUB is in the planning stages of forming an Ecosystem Committee, which will include students, faculty and staff and bolster and coordinate the sustainability efforts already taking place on our campus.

At this time, ground-squirrel control has been discontinued as we move forward together to identify a long-term solution to the overpopulation of the ground squirrels on our campus.       

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