‘Urban Carnivores’ in your backyard

The newly released book details the conflict and challenges of wildlife co-existing with humans.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, just above Malibu, is unique not just for its Mediterranean climate, riparian trails that lead from elevations of 3,000 feet down to Pacific waves lapping the beach and its rich biodiversity. With some 154,000 acres, it is America’s largest urban national park lying within one of the most populous counties in the country.

Such proximity to city life presents unique challenges for park wildlife. These challenges are explored in a new book co-authored by National Park Service ecologist Seth Riley, titled “Urban Carnivores: Ecology, Conflict and Conservation,” published by John Hopkins University Press.

Riley has been studying meat-eating wildlife since he earned his doctorate in ecology from UC Davis and said that the carnivores of the Santa Monica Mountains present a valuable opportunity to study how nature copes with ever-encroaching humanity.

“Many of these animals have a hard time co-existing with humans,” Riley said. “As an ecologist with the National Park Service, it is my job to figure out how we can protect them and preserve their populations.”

The National Park Service has been catching and tagging animals with radio collars locally for 15 years, starting with bobcats and gradually expanding to follow mountain lions. From the data assembled, park rangers have been able to track an extended family of mountain lions since 2000, research that serves to underscore the fragility of their ecosystem.

Mountain lions require about 100 square miles to hunt. Expanding urban development has not only cut into the lions’ territory, man-made obstacles like the 101 Freeway have cut them off from feeding and breeding areas, which has isolated them and weakened their gene pool.

“Carnivores need a huge amount of space and will definitely be affected by loss of habitat in an urban setting,” Riley said. “But there is also likely direct interaction with humans, which can pose its own conflicts, whether people are feeding them or whether their pets are in danger.”

While mountain lions pose little risk to humans (fewer than a dozen attacks have been reported in California in the past 100 years), family pets might make a tasty meal for wildlife, particularly if the pets are fed outside. And, while mountain lion sightings on the Pepperdine University campus have raised alarms in past years, the lions are doing what they are supposed to do, Riley said. Hunting deer, which are plentiful around campus.

The California Wildlife Center in Calabasas regularly has experience with urban carnivores. Dr. Duane Tom, veterinarian at the CWC, said the center frequently rescues hurt bobcats and is currently caring for two orphaned coyote pups.

“Coyotes are really omnivores, so we are not faced with having to catch wild prey for their meals,” Tom said. “It’s more about socializing them so that they can be released as a pack.”

Socializing orphaned wildlife also means relying on other, older rescued animals to teach youngsters how to hunt and survive in the wilderness, while not getting too used to human habits. Tom agreed with Riley that one of the biggest challenges facing urban carnivores comes from people leaving food outside for pets.

“Coyotes will take whatever form of food they can find,” Tom said. “And if they know that there is always a good chance of finding dinner at an outside bowl, pets become meals for them. We are getting closer to their environment and people can help preserve their numbers by feeding their pets inside their homes.”

Local filmmaker Michael Harris has been working with the NPS on a documentary about the growing threat to survival of the mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains, and said he has come to admire and respect the work of Riley and other wildlife biologists.

“These guys are trying to save the species here,” Harris said. “The only way that will happen is if a wildlife corridor is built at Liberty Canyon so they can expand their hunting grounds and find new breeding mates elsewhere, like in the Santa Susana Mountains north of Simi.”

Harris was referring to a project undertaken by Caltrans to build a corridor under the 101 Freeway that would allow wildlife to traverse safely. Because of the state’s current fiscal woes, the project has been put on hold.

“There is a significant genetic difference between bobcats north and south of the freeway,” Riley said. “Even though it was built only about 50 years ago, that is enough time for 25 generations to breed. We can see how much the 101 affects a gene pool in a relatively small area.”

Several NPS scientists working with different wildlife species co-wrote “Urban Carnivores.” Riley contributed seven chapters and helped edit the book, along with Stanley D. Gehrt and Brian L. Cypher. He said he hopes readers take away a greater appreciation for what wildlife is doing in their own backyards.

“You can avoid conflict with nature,” Riley said. “Humans and carnivores can coexist peacefully, even in an urban center.”

In fact, some of them thrive.

“The photo on the cover of the book is one we took up in Bakersfield,” Riley said. “It shows two San Joaquin kit foxes who live up in the Central Valley and are on the federal endangered species list. But we find them all over Bakersfield.”

Seth Riley will speak about the book “Urban Carnivores” at the Santa Monica Mountains visitor center in Thousand Oaks on July 10. More information can be found at the Web site www.smmc.ca.gov

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