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Canine Census Takers Help Topaz Protect Endangered Kit Fox

Posted 12 November 2012 9:30 PM by Alan Bernheimer

This fall, Topaz Solar Farms is conducting its fourth annual census of the San Joaquin kit fox on the project site in San Luis Obispo County, Calif. The effort is part of the 550-megawatt solar project’s effort to avoid, minimize and mitigate environmental impact.

Kit Fox SittingThis diminutive and exceedingly cute kit fox is the only federally listed endangered species whose habitat is being affected by the 550-megawatt Topaz project. The census enables Topaz biologists to determine the project’s impact on the kit fox population. Last fall, before construction started, there were three kit foxes found to frequent the site.

The kit fox census is not as simple as going door to door to count people, since the shy creature is largely nocturnal. Instead, biologists use an ingenious survey method that yields precise results. For two weeks in the fall, several specially trained dogs from Working Dogs for Conservation and their handlers walk the Topaz site and surrounding area, looking for kit fox scat. A successful find means the dog gets to take a quick break from work and play with a ball. The handler scoops up and bags the poop, which is sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. for DNA analysis. The results pinpoint the individual kit foxes that frequent the site, as well as their familial relationships.

Kit Fox
Tia and her handler search the Topaz Solar Farms site for kit fox scat in annual survey.

Dan Meade, principal Topaz biologist with the firm Althouse & Meade, says, “These data on kit fox populations and movement provide invaluable information for protecting local foxes, and also important scientific information. Since every individual fox within the study site during the survey period is identified, a detailed picture of kit fox family relationships, reproduction and territory use is gained. This information is useful beyond the Topaz project, and contributes to understanding this endangered species and informing recovery actions.”

The Topaz project design incorporates a number of measures to accommodate and encourage the kit fox. Kit fox-friendly fencing has a gap at ground level large enough for the fox but excludes its major predator, the coyote. In addition, 200 escape burrows and 10 underground artificial dens are being provided. What is more, 17,000 acres of land outside the project is being preserved in perpetuity as habitat for kit fox and other species, much of which was previously disrupted each spring by agricultural tilling.

Kit Fox Fence
Gap at bottom of kit fox-friendly fence allows the foxes through but excludes the wily coyote.

Kit Fox Tunnel
Two hundred escape tunnels at Topaz also help protect the kit fox.