Deer, Bear and Everywhere: Animals Move Into the City

By: - March 9, 2020 12:00 am

This story was updated March 17 to correct the credit line of the main photo and to update the title of Robert Long, senior conservation scientist with the Woodland Park Zoo.

SEATTLE — Mark Jordan works his way down a muddy forest slope, cutting through ferns and a small stream. The Seattle University professor and a pair of students slowly approach a trail camera they’ve set up to record wildlife.

Jordan and his team aren’t in the backcountry. They’re in Westcrest Park, in an urban Seattle neighborhood near a state highway, surrounded by restaurants, businesses and schools. Their work is part of the Urban Carnivore Project, which tracks wildlife in the Seattle area to help residents and local leaders understand their animal neighbors.

The project — which includes an interactive map with citizen-recorded encounters — has turned up coyote sightings in nearly every neighborhood, along with reports of bobcats, mountain lions and bears.

“These species are present among us,” Jordan said. “Treating every non-human living organism in the city like a nuisance — you’re fighting an uphill battle. It does not behoove you to try to eradicate all the animals in the city. You’ll never win. You need to find better ways to coexist with them.”

Most research on urban wildlife has taken place only in the past 15 years or so, but scientists nationwide generally agree that more animals are moving into urban and suburban areas. “Generalist” species such as deer, coyotes and raccoons, which thrive in many different conditions, have found cities especially welcoming. Many have been forced out of their natural habitat by development, and an abundance of food and lack of predators make cities a good home.

Social media users have been captivated by recently posted videos of a coyote and a badger crossing under a road together and a black bear wandering through a Southern California neighborhood. Liza Lehrer, chairwoman of the Urban Wildlife Working Group and assistant director of the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute in Chicago, said coyotes, flying squirrels, mink and beavers all live in the Windy City.

“We’re seeing more animals moving to the urban core,” she said. “It provides people this really unique experience to see wildlife in a city. You don’t really have to leave the city to have those experiences with nature.”

Seattle is among many cities taking a closer look at their animal residents to help them thrive peacefully alongside humans. Officials want to increase green space, cultivate more plants that pollinators depend on and educate residents about living alongside wild animals.

But difficulties remain, such as reducing deer-car collisions, dealing with nuisance animals that become aggressive and quelling urbanites’ fears about animals like coyotes and mountain lions.

“Animals are just savvy, and they’re starting to adapt because development is pushing them into cities,” said Travis Gallo, who teaches urban ecology at George Mason University.

As the country grows increasingly urbanized, with nearly 90% of the U.S. population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, scientists say that making sure animals and humans can coexist in cities will grow increasingly important.

Urban Critters’ Paradise

One of the leaders in urban ecology, Gallo and others say, is Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital has more green space per capita than nearly any city in the country, according to Tommy Wells, director of the District’s Department of Energy & Environment. Wells’ agency is working to increase the city’s habitat, planting 11,000 trees a year with the goal of reaching 40% coverage of tree canopy before 2032.

The city is “rewilding” streams by turning pipes and drainage ditches back into meandering waterways buffered by vegetation, an effort that has led to a resurgence in birds, fish and reptiles. It’s turning some open spaces into meadows filled with plants that pollinators feed on, instead of mowed grass. And it’s encouraging residents to plant milkweed, which has been a boon to monarch butterflies.

D.C. also has enacted regulations restricting the use of coal tar and some pesticides, aiming to improve the water quality of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. It has strict stormwater regulations, encouraging developers to plant trees and install green roofs. These efforts have paid off, Wells said.  

Shad runs have rebounded on the Potomac River, and the city may soon allow anglers to keep the fish for the first time since 1982. Eagles, bobcats and nesting ravens have been spotted in the District for the first time in years, while a flock of turkeys has taken up residence east of the Capitol. Perhaps most importantly, the newcomers are being welcomed.

“We’re seeing a major change in attitude of the residents of D.C. towards wildlife,” Wells said. “It used to be that if there were bats in your eaves, you’d call Animal Control. Now we have residents asking us how to build a bat house.”

Animals thrive in D.C. because rivers running through the city offer long corridors for them to travel, while extensive green spaces such as Rock Creek Park and the C&O Canal allow them to avoid crossing busy streets.

In some cases, the habitat has proven too welcoming. Wells acknowledged that deer have become a nuisance in parts of the city, with populations growing unchecked and eating too much vegetation. In Rock Creek Park, the National Park Service has for several years brought in sharpshooters to cull the “overabundant” deer.

‘Leave it Alone’

Many wildlife agencies are shifting to a more hands-off approach to animals in urban areas instead of treating every sighting as a problem to be solved. Chicago, which has a large coyote population, won’t act on complaint calls unless an animal poses a threat to human safety.

“If a call comes in about a coyote in a cemetery — well, leave it alone because it’s not interacting with you,” said Mamadou Diakhate, interim director of Chicago’s Animal Care and Control. “The excellent news about coyotes [is], they are very good at avoiding human contact and they’re not aggressive most of the time.”

Chicago has worked to educate people about living alongside coyotes, but rare moments of conflict — such as a January incident in which a young boy was bitten — can create the perception that the animals pose a threat. The city has received more than 1,000 calls about coyotes in the first two months of the year, nearly equal to the total from 2019. Diakhate noted that the city sends officers to respond to all calls about coyotes, but most prove to be a “sighting” rather than a “nuisance” that requires action.

Scientists say coyotes have proven to be one of the most adaptable species, and they have taken up residence in many large cities, from New York City to Denver to Portland. Although coyotes occasionally prey on small pets left outdoors, researchers say they’re far less dangerous than most people tend to think.

Still, perceptions about coyotes can be an issue. The city of Arcadia, California, passed a plan in 2017 to trap and kill coyotes in response to concerned residents.

“No one should worry about going to the mailbox,” then-Mayor Tom Beck said at the time.

Biologists say attempts to reduce coyote populations by killing animals are futile. The animals have larger litters when their numbers are dwindling, a tactic known as “compensatory breeding.”

Predation isn’t the only concern about urban wildlife. Disease ecologist Peter Daszak wrote in the New York Times last month that pandemics usually begin as viruses in animals, a concern that may get particular attention as the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the country.

“These spillovers are increasing exponentially as our ecological footprint brings us closer to wildlife in remote areas and the wildlife trade brings these animals into urban centers,” Daszak wrote.

Ashley Hobbs, a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, spends much of her time talking to residents as part of the Bearwise program, which operates in 15 Southeast states. Like the coyote calls in Chicago, most bear complaints turn out to be false alarms. 

“We certainly do get calls saying there’s a bear in my home, bear in my chicken coop, but for the most part they’re perceived threats, and it’s usually fairly normal bear behavior,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs encourages residents to follow simple guidelines: Don’t feed bears, secure food and garbage, remove bird feeders, clean and store grills, don’t leave pet food outside. Taking such steps makes it more likely bears will pass through instead of sticking around. Officials in the region also are considering bearproof trash cans and wildlife underpasses on roads, she said. 

Animal Invasion

Not all urban animals make good neighbors. When the deer population skyrocketed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the mid-1990s, auto collisions with the animals became more frequent and vegetation in the city began to disappear. With no natural predators in town, there was nothing to check the spread of the deer.

In 2005, the city began allowing hunting in town, crafting careful regulations for bowhunters who wanted to hunt on private property. Hunters must get permission from property owners and stay on large properties away from public areas. Local officials say hunting has succeeded in keeping the deer population at a more manageable level.

When a black bear was spotted in Berrien County, Michigan, in 2016, the first sighting there since the Civil War, many locals were excited. But the bruin bent over bird feeders, tore through trash cans and twice tried to push its way into houses. Because the bear didn’t show any fear of humans, said Mark Mills, a biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the agency had no choice but to euthanize it. 

Mills said such situations are rare.

“People think we’re going and saving the public from this bear,” he said. “We’re not saving anybody’s life here other than the bear’s. We’re responding to get the bear out of there, because he’s stuck in a situation where he’s surrounded by people.”

Aggressive turkeys also have become a problem in some areas, causing traffic snarls and harassing residents in places such as Staten Island, New York and Toms River, New Jersey. 

Helping Hand

In California’s Ventura County, scientists worried that development would soon cut off all wildlife migration corridors between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Los Padres National Forest. Without a passage through the county, mountain lions and other animals would be left on “islands,” limiting their range and habitat. 

Last year, the county adopted an ordinance restricting development in wildlife corridors. The measure protects vegetation near roads and waterways, features that are important for animal movement. It requires buildings to be clustered together on agricultural lots, leaving most of the land undeveloped. The ordinance also creates new standards for fencing, limits light pollution and requires the county to consider wildlife passage as part of its road maintenance planning. 

“We share the land in this county with animals who need our help to continue moving through these spaces,” said Shelley Sussman, a long-range planner with the county. 

Neighboring Los Angeles County has taken some similar measures, tightening development rules in the places it has labeled Significant Ecological Areas.

In urban and suburban areas, leaders are realizing that human environments can be vital habitat to many animals. The trees in Chicago are a crucial stopover for migratory birds, noted Gallo, the urban ecologist, offering shelter in a region otherwise dominated by vast fields of corn and soybeans. 

Peaceful Coexistence

Back in Seattle, the Urban Carnivore Project team is continuing to collect data with a network of camera traps and citizen reports.

“There’s this idea that animals and some species in particular may be rapidly evolving to better live close to people,” said Robert Long, a senior conservation scientist with the Woodland Park Zoo, and another of the project’s researchers. “I don’t think that’s far-fetched at all.”

The goal, Long said, is to get residents to stop posting frightened warnings on social media when they see a coyote on a golf course. 

“Let’s show people how much these animals are already coexisting with us,” he said. “Coyotes aren’t just on the golf course, they’re everywhere all the time.”

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.