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John Harte / The Californian

Michael Fitzgerald shows an opening in a fence that he says in used by kit foxes which inhabit a large lot in southwest Bakersfield off of River Run Boulevard.

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John Harte / The Californian

Photo courtesy of Michael Fitzgerald

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John Harte / The Californian

Citizens opposed to proposed zoning change in southwest Bakersfield. Robert Fitzgerald with a group of neighbors concerned that a zoning change will disrupt kit fox habitat near their neighborhood. From left are Eric Tobin, Anthony Tobin, Fitzgerald, Gayle Hui and Dan Brito.

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John Harte / The Californian

Citizens opposed to proposed zoning change in southwest Bakersfield. Michael Fitzgerald

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Photo courtesy of Michael Fitzgerald

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Citizens opposed to proposed zoning change in southwest Bakersfield. Brothers Anthony (left) and Eric Tobin, who are concerned about potential disruption of kit fox habitat in southwest Bakersfiled, where a lot off River Run Boulevard may be rezoned.

From a distance, the 12 acre plot of land looks abandoned and lifeless. But if you look closely you see many holes under the surrounding fence -- holes that were were made by the residents -- San Joaquin Kit Foxes.

Now neighbors who hope to stop development of an apartment complex are playing the kit fox card, noting that the animals are listed as endangered species. The empty plot of land is located at River Run and Elkhorn Creek Lane.

Michael Fitzgerald, 53, who lives nearby, is using two infrared cameras to document the presence of the critters.

"I bought the cameras just for this," Fitzgerald said. "They run so fast through and out of here that it took me a couple of shots to be able to get a full body picture of them."

The holes underneath the fence are about 12 inches wide and 5 inches deep.

The cameras were placed near one of the holes and when the kit fox approached the hole, a camera sensed the body heat of the fox and would snap two consecutive photos of the animal.

"The next step is to present everything we have researched to the county and city during a meeting," Fitzgerald said, who has lived in the area for a decade. "They will have to decide what is more important, either allowing apartments or leaving the land alone for the benefit of the kit foxes."

Another neighbor, Gayle Hui, 46, said he didn't know what a kit fox was when he arrived in Bakersfield 20 years ago. But after meeting Fitzgerald and other neighbors, he now understands the importance of keeping them safe.

"The foxes have a right to roam around here and knowing that this type of land is important to them should be respected by all of us," Hui said.

Not everyone knows that the omnipresent kit foxes, seen all over town, are an endangered species protected by federal and state law. Damage done to the foxes or dens can be a federal crime, said Kim Delfino, California program director of Defenders of Wildlife, a non-profiit organization.

"Any type of construction company planning on building has to have a permit in order to be able to do their project because if you move forward without it, you can be taken to jail because they are an endangered species in California," she said.

However, one ecologist says the presence on the foxes doesn't necessarily mean the lot can't be developed.

Brian L. Cypher, research ecologist at Cal-State Stanislaus and director of an endangered species recovery program for San Joaquin kit foxes, says the foxes in Bakersfield have adapted to the urban environment. Although they are always in danger because of where they reside, the construction site at River Run doesn't pose much conflict, he said.

"The loss of one den isn't catastrophic because they have other areas in town to go to," he said. "Generally they have multiple dens they will move to, but it is extremely important for the city to make sure no construction begins if they find foxes living there."

The developer and property owner, Black Ops Real Estate, has applied for a zoning change that would allow a higher density designation than the single family home status that currently prevails on the site. The change, if granted by the city, would allow the building of an apartment complex.

The developers did not respond to requests for comment.

Matt Wade, general manager for property owner Black Ops, didn't return calls. Nor would a representative from McIntosh of McIntosh & Associations, a firm representing Black Ops, comment.

Fitzgerald, the neighbor/photographer,is concerned about the safety of the foxes if this construction starts soon.

"This is a special opportunity for us to keep a preserved spot for an endangered species," he said. "I have heard the little fox pups yapping in past years at night so I know they have a den out there. I don't know how they want to start construction if they are here."

In January, the City of Bakersfield's planning division reviewed the Black Ops application but didn't act, said Cecilia Griego, a city associate planner.

"They are currently changing land use but most developers know they have to pass a list of things in order to get a permit for construction," Griego said. "And if there is potential mitigation measures, they would have to comply with the law and stop development," Griego said.

Mitigation measures in this case would mean relocating the kit foxes or waiting until they are old enough to migrate somewhere else, she said.

Any plans would have to be approved by the stateFish and Wildlife Department, said Griego.