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As wildlife moves into urban areas, people and pets at greater risk

My recent post about the one-year anniversary of the Marshall fire in Colorado cited a U.S. Fire Administration report, issued last June, that raised the alarm about urban encroachment on undeveloped land. Titled “Wildland Urban Interface: A Look at Issues and Resolutions,” the report was an unabashed effort to “trigger a sense of urgency and motivation” about safeguarding exurban communities from wildfires.

It’s a report worth reading, but given its narrow focus, only scratched the surface of an increasingly complex subject. While the intrusion of human dwellings into wildland areas increases fire risks, “wildlands” don’t consist solely of vegetation: there’s fauna associated with that flora. And while wildfires can cause destruction on an epic scale—the Marshall fire consumed more than 1,000 homes—wild animals can be just as lethal in the number of human lives they claim. Moreover, wildlife predators increasingly are moving into fully urbanized areas, where they’re greeted with a mixture of fear and anthropomorphizing wonder that complicates an appropriate human response.

An extreme example of this phenomenon played out in Los Angeles last month, where a mountain lion known as P-22 was euthanized after spending more than a decade prowling the city—euthanized not to remove a potential threat to adults, children and pets, but because of its long-term health problems exacerbated by being struck by a car. The “bona fide celebrity,” as the lion was described in news stories, was finally trapped after reports that it had attacked three dogs within a month and had several near-encounters with hikers. Veterinarians found that the emaciated puma’s injuries from the accident included a skull fracture, an injury to its right eye, herniated organs and a torn diaphragm. But the lion also had lost about a quarter of its body weight and had heart, kidney and liver disease, a thinning coat and a parasitic infection—hardly the stuff of an uplifting “Born Free” sequel.

While news coverage of an apex predator’s life and death in the country’s second-largest city was inexplicably fawning, the problem of large wild animals penetrating towns and cities is growing coast to coast. The resulting human toll is still limited, although not negligible, but the worry is that increased habituation to humans coupled with growing wildlife population pressure will lead to more attacks. Pets, meanwhile, have decidedly more to worry about than do their owners.

As reported more recently by the Colorado Sun, residents in and around Nederland, a Colorado town in the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Boulder, have been complaining to state wildlife officials that mountain lions had killed 15 dogs over a recent 30-day period and have been stalking their horses. As one woman from nearby Rollinsville said, about an incident Dec. 26, “Our beloved Aussie shepherd was snatched off the porch by a massive mountain lion right in front of me as I ran to open the door…. I’m now scared for our children.” With an estimated four mountain lions per 36 square miles in an area that stretches from the Continental Divide to Interstate 25, more such incidents are all but inevitable. “That’s, yeah. That’s a lot of lions,” as one wildlife manager acknowledged at a local meeting.

One of 80 signs warning of mountain lions in the area around Nederland.

But mountain lions are only one among a handful of beasts with large teeth and claws adapting to the human landscape, a list that includes wolves, coyotes and black bears. And while all tend to avoid humans when possible, that aversion may be lessening with increased interaction among the species. Wolf attacks on humans are extraordinarily rare, for example, but not unprecedented. The Norwegian Institute for Nature Research recently compiled a list of 489 wolf attacks between 2002 and 2020 in North America and Europe, most by rabid animals, but also including 67 people who were victims of predatory attacks; nine of those victims were killed, for an average of one every two years.

Coyotes, meanwhile, historically far more wary of humans than either lions or wolves, have proliferated across the continent and appear increasingly capable of regarding people as a food source. After an aggressive pack in the Cape Breton Highlands killed a 19-year-old Canadian woman in 2009, followed by 32 other reports of “coyote-human incidents”— including seven in which people were bitten—a research project concluded that such emboldened behavior is a result of the pack acquiring a taste for larger prey. Because of changing environmental conditions that depleted the supply of the smaller mammals they usually hunt, the coyotes began to learn how to take down moose, which average 1,000 pounds apiece. Attacks on people “are at least partially the result of prey-switching,” concluded the study, according to an article last month in the National Post.

Although the Cape Breton coyotes may be an extreme example, the species is expanding by leaps and bounds elsewhere, and frequently in menacing ways. The Massachusetts coastal town of Nahant reportedly has at least a dozen coyotes that have grown increasingly brazen about going after pets, with some owners outfitting their dogs with spiked “coyote jackets” to repel attacks. Yet despite 500 or more coyotes killed in Massachusetts each year, the number keeps growing and coyotes are now in every part of the state except for the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Just how large a problem this can become is illustrated by South Carolina, where annual hunting and trapping has yet to make a dent in a population of 25,000 to 30,000 coyotes.

Meanwhile, the growth in black bear populations has been almost as remarkable, with current U.S. estimates ranging from 300,000 to twice that number. Although omnivorous, rather than carnivorous, and far more shy than their aggressive brown cousins, black bears are so ubiquitous that their encounters with humans are increasingly inevitable, with occasionally tragic consequences—and especially so if a bear cub is involved.

There’s other wildlife of varying degrees of concern, of course. Every year seems to include at least one story of someone becoming an alligator snack. Raccoons can be incredibly destructive of private property, but also pose an acute physical threat to anyone foolishly trying to ward them off. Muskrats, beavers, porcupines, skunks—the list of creatures that don’t mesh well with urban and suburban environments is extensive and often problematic. The problem is not that we share this planet with other animals, however—it’s that we don’t acknowledge their essentially wild nature. Too often we treat this wild element as something that exists for our amusement (see P-22 above), but we’re just as foolish when we perceive such animals as being on par with a tree or boulder—as just another piece of landscape.

A comprehensive understanding of the wildland urban interface must include more than trees, grasses and underbrush; it also must include the four-legged critters that call the woodlands home. It’s a wildlife urban interface, too, with obvious implications for every campground owner, boondocker, backpacker and other outdoor enthusiasts.

Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park, and of Turning Dirt, a step-by-step guide for finding, buying and operating an RV park and campground. Both books are available through bookstores or at Amazon.com.

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Steve
12 days ago

Yup, people don’t like hunters because we kill helpless animals, they like seeing deer until they hit one with their BMW because there are so many deer, they love seeing fox and coyotes until one of them grabs their little pet ankle biter, but heaven help us for hunting them. Need I go on? Either reduce the human population, stop moving into the wild animals habitat or live with the results. I am really surprised how so many people have so little common sense.

Dennis E Prichard
13 days ago

I’m not surprised more incidences aren’t happening. I’m also surprised these larger predators haven’t acquired a taste for humans before now. If they are taking 1000-lb. moose, what’s a 200-lb person? Just a snack. Watch yer back, snack!

Different Chuck
13 days ago

The greatest very recent example of human stupidity is the wind farms off the coast of New Jersey that over the last 30 days have killed 7 whales and rising. Construction of this current project has barely started and 7 whales, including a humpback 3 days ago are dead. It is the sonar being used in the surveying phase if the ocean floor that is crushing the whales ability to navigate and communicate. This is a foreign owned wind farm so not only do we get to pay a foreign company for the power this wind farm will generate, we also get our American wildlife decimated.

The Gov’t is currently trying to blame fisherman, lobstermen and the fishing industry because they are so deep in the foreign pockets for campaign contributions (and more) they are blinded.

The environmentalists are in a pickle because the wind is supposed to save the planet but alas, the policy is decimating whales and now where do they hide? Behind the rotting carcasses.

Cancelproof
13 days ago

My comments are intended to show the fragile balance humans have in nature. I know we don’t park our RVs on barges bear the New Jersey shore and the wind farm so don’t torch me on that.

Mike Albert
8 days ago

NOAA stated that this information is untrue. First, no construction has started. This information was “confirmed” on Fox news as being the cause. The cause is due to the availability of menhaden, the small fish that whales consume, moving closer to the shore and in the shipping lanes, and to the warming of the ocean off the east coast. The latest was caused by a vessel strike. This is not caused by construction that has not yet begun.

Cancelproof
5 days ago
Reply to  Mike Albert

So NOAA, a govt agency has put out a statement clearing the first govt agency. Convenient.

The 7th was a vessel strike. The first 6 in that month were?????

And yeah, major construction has not started. Only the SONAR mapping portion of the work. You know, SONAR, the communication language of whales.

The government would never lie to us. Just ask the FBI, they will tell you the same.

Cancelproof
5 days ago
Reply to  Mike Albert

Just on case you return for a check on replies Mike, you might be correct. My point is an INDEPENDANT REVIEW should be done.

I’m not suggesting that NOAA would cover for DOE or any other acronym. That would imply a conspiracy between beaurocrats and that would be aluminum foil on the head stuff.

I mean you never see, hypothetically of course an Anthony Fauci agree with Michelle Wollensky who agrees with Loydd Austin who agrees with Randy Weingarten in support of the idea that the Covid vaccine accually prevents the spread of Covid 19. That would never happen, would it?

Pammy
13 days ago

Maybe instead of a new proliferation of wildlife, it’s overpopulation of humans…

Karen Willis
12 days ago
Reply to  Pammy

This, in this country and the world.

Steve
12 days ago
Reply to  Pammy

True but the loss of habitat causes more interaction. But the lower number of sportsman affect it also.

mike
13 days ago

How many of you enjoy and accept mosquitos, rats, roaches and flies?

All have a purpose.

And they were here first too…

Tom E
13 days ago

Andy, the wildlife was there first. Period. You stated it wrong. Humans are NOT sharing this planet with wildlife. Human population will double over the next several decades. We are systematically eliminating the places they can inhabit. As human expansion into wildlife areas continues, the wild animals aren’t told – hey, go live some place else. They have no other place to go. They’ve lost their homes. They have become homeless. This is why is is vital to maintain our nation’s & state parks and wildlife sanctuaries – to limit human development in these areas. I lived in the wilds of the Ozark mountains encountering mountain lions while on horseback. I’ve walked trails into virgin forests of the Great Smokies and encountered numerous black bears – some with cubs. And I’ve experienced first hand when a hungry coyote takes a neighbors dog. All these wild animals were here before us – not unlike the taking of native american lands. We humans feel it is our right to drive them out.

Janet
13 days ago
Reply to  Tom E

Amen!! I live in California where conservation and animal protection is preached but not acted upon except in words, not deeds. Hate it and I’m glad I’m old and won’t have to see what this country becomes.

Lorelei
13 days ago

Moving in millions of illegals and hollering housing shortage, no wonder it’s a problem, there are too many people regardless. The cougars, bobcats, coyotes, and bears roam through my place and just want to be left alone. If people wouldn’t kill off their food supply, it might help also. This summer, a cougar got a deer in my yard. They are always in good shape. They don’t need my dog; nevertheless, when he is out, I’m out with him and when out of his fenced yard, he is on leash. I’m not afraid of them, but do respect them. They use my trails, especially along the creek. I’ve lived in these same bushes with them for 74 years and have not had any problems. Humans need to leave them alone.

Genia Fontenot
13 days ago

The subjects of this headline need to be swapped out. People are moving into wildlife areas.

Joni Clark Stellar
12 days ago
Reply to  Genia Fontenot

Precisely right. We humans are over populating the planet.

Dave
13 days ago

Can’t say there’s much new here. These problems have been around many years; foxes, hawks, weasels and bears raiding chicken houses. Farmers have dealt with this for 100s of years. If you have a Chihuahua, be aware. Good judgment seems to be the best solution. Same goes for RVers. We go where animals live.

Bob p
14 days ago

This can be associated with the same situation where people buy homes in a housing area next to an airport that’s been there for years then complain about the noise. As home builders push into wildlife habitats they must deal with the fact that wildlife was there first, it’s their territory, just because you build a house there doesn’t mean they take that as an eviction notice.

Lorelei
13 days ago
Reply to  Bob p

Exactly. The railroad here was built in 1914, and there are usually two trains per day. The neighbors down the road don’t like the noise. If it wasn’t here, I’d miss it. And they don’t like the dust from the road. It beats me why they moved here! Luckily, they seem to like the wildlife.

Donald N Wright
14 days ago

We have this problem in Dallas fort Worth and most of Texas. city hall just cannot say “no” to developers, and folks keep moving here. What used to be forests and open fields for smaller animals is now houses and concrete. Water is a problem too, and worse in the Hill country, as for the giant pigs roaming the farms, they breed like “Tribbles”, damage everything, and they taste bad.

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