What a Wolf's Extraordinary Journey Means for the Future of Wildlife
The city of Chicago beats them all, assiduously tending acres of dunes, forests, and wetlands for resident skunks, coyotes, shorebirds, and raptors, making the city and its environs a bountiful refuge from the corn and soybean monoculture that surrounds it.
“Cities,” said Travis Longcore, a professor of spatial sciences at the University of Southern California and the science director of The Urban Wildlands Group in Los Angeles, “are enormous collectors of resources [for wildlife]. We bring water into them, we plant plants, we take care of those plants. We have food, we have trash, we have shelter.” Such abundance can set up a good life for predators and their prey, animals that elsewhere would spend their short lives hunting or running for cover on the edge of existence.
But it’s not just that wild animals have moved into our neighborhoods; humans have moved into theirs. We have in the last few decades made the wild more urban, pushing deeper into the country and higher into the mountains, and building on ever-steeper slopes. A 2013 report by the research firm CoreLogic found that of the 17 million homes built in the U.S. between 1990 and 2008, ten million were built in the “wildland-urban interface,” or WUI, where the city collides with the outback. If a bear strolls down from the mountains to swim in a suburban swimming pool, it may be because the pool covered her old familiar watering hole.
River Simard with his mother, Alison, in their backyard
in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles. (Photo: Larry Hirshowitz)
Yet however fascinated we might be with our urban animals, we are also tortured. Residents of Glendale, a city of 234,000 north of downtown Los Angeles, organized to halt state authorities from euthanizing a nuisance bear nicknamed Meatball (for the booty it snatched from someone's freezer), but the interloper didn’t get to stay: After several failed relocation attempts, the animal was moved to a San Diego sanctuary. Residents responded with unalloyed horror three years ago when police in Santa Monica, California, shot and killed a mountain lion that wandered into an office building's courtyard, but the police could hardly have allowed an apex predator to run amok through the busy outdoor shopping promenade a block away. And whatever enchantment we might derive from our encounters with urban mammals, we cherish our non-wild creatures more: Authorities in Seal Beach, California, south of Los Angeles, recently began trapping and gassing coyotes because they were killing locals’ fluffy little dogs.
Simultaneously awed and terrified by our urban critters, we are at a loss to understand them. We leave food out for cats, but coyotes eat it; habituated to humans, they become a danger and have to be killed. We lure rats into boxes to gorge on blood-thinning poisons, not considering that the rats spread the poison up the food chain. We chop down rotting trees in the name of neighborhood beautification, destroying the homes of woodpeckers and egrets. We build freeways across canyons and lock animals into isolated parks to ensure their genetic decline. And as River Simard discovered, we build houses on mountainsides that disrupt movement critical to their hunting, hiding, and sheltering.
When River was six, the ecosystem outside his window began to collapse. A developer named Yossi Atia had received permits to build three palatial white mansions next door, and bulldozers started to grade the hillside. River’s little singing wilderness turned to dust. “It used to be all grass and other plants,” he says, sweeping his hand wide across the picture window. “Then it was all gone.”
Perhaps most damaging of all, the contractors surrounded the construction site with towering fences, blocking the route wildlife had followed since tectonic forces lifted up the hills. Panicked skunks, possums, and raccoons skittered chaotically about, running for cover around the foundation of the Simards’ house.
“That’s how we learned the term ‘wildlife corridor,’ ” River’s mom, Alison Simard says. “We realized we’d been watching an ancient migratory pattern, not just on the ground but in the sky.”
All cities have their wildlife pathways, some of them dating back before urbanization, some of them developed over decades of adaptation. But Los Angeles is unique. “I don’t know of another North American city that’s bisected by a mountain range like Los Angeles is,” Longcore says. The Santa Monica Mountains extend 46 miles from the coast to the Los Angeles River, 3,111 feet at their highest point; they and the San Gabriels, which rise to 10,000 feet above sea level, make Los Angeles the wild and rugged place it is. Of the six cities CoreLogic’s report looked at in depth, Los Angeles was the one with the most homes deep in the WUI.
The Simards’ cottage in the Hollywood Hills belongs to the Santa Monica range. For most of the city’s history, no developer could economically build on the mountains’ steeper slopes, so urban development was separated by large swaths of open space. But in the early 2000s, property values spiked and engineers were smarter. Steep-slope building suddenly became worth the expense and risk. Cement trucks, cranes, and bulldozers moved up the winding canyon roads. The new construction crews were not putting up 800-square-foot cottages like the one the Simards live in, or bungalows cantilevered over the sides of canyons. They were sinking steel beams for sealed fortresses thrust into hillsides, concrete boxes with spectacular views of the sage-scrub elfin forest.
Alison Simard at first thought the Atia houses were in violation of an anti-“mansionization” ordinance the city passed in 2008, limiting the floor plan to lot-size ratio. Then she talked to Paul Edelman, a biologist with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and realized she had an even better legal argument. Edelman had drawn maps of migratory pathways wildlife takes through the mountains, and the new houses cut right into them. Because the development harmed wildlife, it was in violation of California’s Environmental Quality Act. She and her neighbors formed a “concerned residents” coalition, and in August 2012, they sued.
Mountain Lion P-22 on Path in Griffith Park
Baby Moose on the Loose
Great Horned Owl in Griffith Park
Coyote in Griffith Park
Bear Cools Off in Backyard Pool in Sierra Madre Foothills
Atia settled, agreeing to leave undeveloped a 15-foot-wide path for animals to pass through. The Simards claimed victory and used that momentum to form an environmental nonprofit, Citizens for Los Angeles Wildlife, or CLAW. The suit also set a precedent: At CLAW’s urging, City Councilman Paul Koretz authored an ordinance that would require developers to prove they weren’t blocking migratory routes before building—a precautionary principle for wildlife. (The ordinance is now under review by the Los Angeles City Planning Commission.)
CLAW’s efforts didn’t end there. The wildlife corridor issue awakened the Simards and their neighbors to other ways they were inadvertently killing the animals they loved. Through a neighbor, Alison got to know Laurel Serieys, a biologist who was studying bobcats in the wilder western reaches of the Santa Monicas. “She said, ‘That’s great that you’re so concerned about wildlife corridors,’ ” Alison remembers. “ ‘But how many of your neighbors are using rat poison?’ ”
River heard that and thought back to all the animals he’d found dead. Hawks fallen from the sky, their beaks covered in blood. Skunks, lifeless but intact, bleeding from the mouth. And then there was the bobcat. “We saw her with four kittens,” River says. They played on the trampoline in a neighbor’s backyard. For a summer, they were a beloved neighborhood fixture.
Then they started to disappear—the bobcat lost her brood one by one. First the mother cat came by with just three kittens, then two, then one. Then that kitten disappeared, too, and finally the mother was found lying in the road. She’d been struck by a car and later died in a neighbor’s arms.
Biologists have long suspected a connection between a certain kind of feline mange and rat poison. Serieys has found blood-thinning chemicals in nearly every mange-ridden bobcat she’s tested. But she wondered if it could be worse than that. Early studies were showing that poisoned rats get stupid before they hemorrhage to death, and a high number of road-killed bobcats Serieys tested turned up positive for rodenticides. Could the poisons be inhibiting the cats’ ability to assess the risks of traffic?
“It isn’t yet possible to draw robust conclusions,” Serieys told me. The sample size is small, so while there seems to be a correlation, she’s a long way from showing causation. Frequent vehicle strikes of poisoned animals, she says, is for now just “an interesting trend.”
It was enough, though, to inspire CLAW to launch a new crusade. “Instead of using rodenticide, we wanted to control the rats the natural way,” River says. “We were thinking, ‘How about barn owls?’ They need food. They’re already up here.” The Simards and their friends now go door-to-door convincing neighbors to put up boxes where barn owls—fierce and skilled hunters of rats—can take refuge and raise their young.
Will there ever be enough barn owls to keep all the rats at bay? “No,” Alison says flatly. “But if we get people to connect with their little heart-shaped faces, and think they might be responsible for killing them [by using rat poison], then, we hope, they tell their exterminator to use traps.”
The Griffith Park mountain lion showed symptoms of mange (left), one form of which has been linked to a rat poison commonly used in urban areas. He was captured and treated by National Park Service biologists and a few months later had improved considerably (right). (Photos: National Park Service)
If, in the midst of the worst extinction crisis since the
one that killed the dinosaurs, our cities of well-intentioned citizens are blindly making things worse for wildlife, we are not entirely to blame. It is only recently that biologists have tried to understand urban nature.
“They considered cities imperfect ecologies,” Longcore said, and therefore not worth studying. “They thought, ‘They don’t have top carnivores, so who cares? They’re not that interesting.’ ” Then, in 1997, the National Science Foundation issued two grants, one to Phoenix and the other to Baltimore, to study wildlife within their metro areas. Biologists found more birds in the Arizona suburbs than in the surrounding Sonoran Desert; they found deer, foxes, and rabbits along Baltimore’s industrial waterfront (which has now been restored, with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as an urban wildlife refuge). The study of urban ecologies broke wide open, said Longcore. “The grants legitimized studying cities as ‘Hey, this is a place that we need to research and understand even if it doesn’t have grizzly bears.’ ”
The grants also triggered a public education campaign all over the nation. “Now we can use science to start to tell people some of the story of their place,” Longcore said, “to help people understand what they’re sharing their city with. And to appreciate it a little better, and to understand how nature works.” And, perhaps, to coexist more peaceably with its creatures.
On a chilly Sunday just before Christmas, I took a walk with Miguel Ordeñana, a biologist with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County who over the years has developed a specialty: setting up motion-sensor cameras at known wildlife crossings to photograph what moves through. Rain had touched Los Angeles the week before, and the hillsides were sprouting emerald with new grasses and weeds. We slipped through tears in a couple of chain-link fences to get to a spot where a tunnel bores under Interstate 5 near Griffith Park, a 4,310-acre urban wilderness—one of the largest in the country—at the far eastern edge of the Santa Monica Mountains.
(Illustrated by Lauren Wade)
Ordeñana, 32, is the youngest member of the Griffith Park Wildlife Connectivity Study, a four-year-old effort begun by ecologist Dan Cooper to understand what lives in and moves through the park. With dark hair and an easy laugh, Ordeñana is gregarious for a scientist; he revels in persuading recalcitrant residents to keep their dogs on leash and their cats indoors (coyotes consider house cats a delicacy).
He’s also full of wonder at the tenacity of the animals he studies. “When [the connectivity study] first got started,” Ordeñana said, “people didn’t think Griffith Park was any more than a habitat oasis, an island. Our study has proved that it’s more than that. Animals come in, animals leave.” They do so using whatever route they can find, through equestrian tunnels, over pedestrian bridges, even down into the Los Angeles River, a wildlife corridor itself.
“This tunnel’s very popular,” Ordeñana said, stopping at the entrance to an equestrian underpass beneath the freeway. One of his cameras is there, on a Telespar post, encased in a padlocked steel box. “It’s the first place we got an image of a bobcat [using a wildlife corridor] in the Griffith Park area,” he said. “Very cool.” Bobcats, small felines with ringed tails and tufted ears, are among the most charismatic and resilient of the world’s cat species, turning up in deserts, plains, wetlands, and forests. But before the study, only a few scientists were aware they were here.
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Beyond the tunnel, we came to an overpass spanning the Los Angeles River—another crossing built for horses, covered with soft, quiet dirt. Animals don’t like to hear their own footsteps, Ordeñana explained. It freaks them out. “Sometimes I’ll put a camera in some beautiful, isolated canyon and think, ‘This is perfect, I’ll get a lot of animals coming through here,’ ” he said. “Then I don’t get anything, and I realize the area is full of noisy leaf litter.” A camera on the overpass has snapped images of animals waiting cagily for horses to cross; another, lower down, caught a coyote chasing one of the ducks that fish and mingle among the great blue herons. “Not a staple of the coyote diet,” Ordeñana said. “They usually prefer prey that can’t fly.”
In the first few months of the study, Cooper and his team focused exclusively on the west side of the park, to see what was coming in across the U.S. 101 freeway near the Hollywood Bowl. Their initial 13 cameras caught silvery images of the usual suspects: coyotes, deer, and raccoons, sometimes a homeless person. Then, at 9:15 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2012, they hit pay dirt: A full-grown mountain lion tripped a sensor and announced his presence to the world.
The team called in National Park Service biologist Jeff Sikich, a renowned expert in large carnivores who studies mountain lions. Sikich tracked, trapped, and sedated the animal, fitting him with a GPS collar. They named him P-22: the 22nd puma collared in an ongoing NPS study that began in 2002.
To have a predator of a puma’s caliber in a major metropolis is completely unheard of. P-22 put the connectivity study in the national news, particularly after Steve Winter later photographed him (above) and published the image in
National Geographic. (Read TakePart contributor Mike Kessler’s full account of P-22 here.) Of the estimated dozen or so animals that persist in the Santa Monicas, none had been documented so far east. P-22 likely braved two perilous freeways to avoid being killed by another male of his kind—intraspecies predation kills more pumas in the Santa Monicas’ cloistered habitat than anything else. But to serve his species’ future he’ll need to find a mate. Unless a female puma makes her way across the freeways from the west, he’ll have to move out, crossing I-5 to get to mountains to the northeast, and maybe even beyond, into the San Gabriels.
That will be tough. Obstacles galore—film studios’ back lots, shopping malls, gravel-mining quarries, and more—lie between P-22 and real freedom. Which is not to say it hasn’t been done, if not by a cougar, then by a bobcat or coyotes or gray foxes or
skunks; no one knows for sure. No one knows, either, whether the numbers of bobcats, coyotes, and deer that travel past Ordeñana’s cameras have gone up or down in the last 10, 20, or 50 years or, really, if a lion even made it here before. While New York City has an award-winning team of more than 30 scientists monitoring the city’s parks, forests, and wetlands, and Cleveland and Chicago have teams of biologists assessing wildlife in their verdant parks, the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks has neither the funding nor the wherewithal to count the common animals of the city’s fragmented habitat.
“It’s embarrassing,” Ordeñana said. “In order to manage urban open spaces responsibly, you have to base your management decisions on scientifically produced evidence and research.” That’s not happening in L.A., which
seems misaligned with the interests of many of its citizens, who like to regale one another at parties with tales of coyote encounters. So Cooper, Ordeñana, and Erin Boydston, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who also works on the connectivity study, have in the void become the city’s unofficial biologists, meeting on weekends and enlisting volunteers to maintain cameras and change batteries. Ordeñana posts the photos they capture on the Urban Carnivores website; a friend posts them to the “Griffith Park Trail Cam” Tumblr. The pictures can’t substitute for hard numbers, but they count for something. “People see the images, especially when they see the kittens, and it reminds them of their own cats, and they start to care,” Ordeñana said. “Then they ask what they can do to help.”
My main concern, driving west on a Friday morning this past September, was that I wouldn’t be able to find the event. The invitation only read, “101 Freeway at the Liberty Canyon exit,” in the Los Angeles suburb of Agoura Hills, a sprawl of new condos and mid-level mansions north of the Santa Monica Mountains. The meeting point could be anywhere within a half-mile radius; the 25 or so attendees I expected to find could be hidden by a hill or tucked behind an office complex. I imagined an inconspicuous little gathering; how many would show up in support of a wildlife corridor?
Liberty Canyon connects the Santa Monicas with undeveloped land in the Simi Hills; if animals can walk through it, they can keep moving north all the way to Los Padres National Forest, where they can feast and kill and spread their seed among the thousands of their kind in the wilderness east of Big Sur. There’s only one catch: The canyon funnels animals right down to an eight-lane freeway. Liberty Canyon is where wildlife comes to die. Drive it at dawn, and you’re virtually guaranteed to find roadkill.
Wildlife advocates from the National Wildlife Federation, the Audubon Society, and the National Park Service have joined residents in pushing for a $10 million underpass to allow wildlife to cross the freeway safely.
I needn’t have worried about finding the rally to support the project; it was impossible to miss. There weren’t just 25 people, or 50 people. There were 400, and I had to park almost a mile away. It was a mob scene: people dressed up like animals, busloads of children, limousines ferrying public officials, a woman from the Audubon Society with an ornery falcon on her arm. (“He’s fed up with the heat,” she told me.) CLAW member Skip Haynes unveiled an oil painting, by Miami-based artist Rick Garcia, he’d commissioned of P-22, now fully recovered after having ingested rat poison and suffered mange himself. River Simard gave a speech: “When are you grown-ups gonna get it?” he complained. State Sen. Fran Pavley sashayed through the adoring crowd. “My whole district is one great big wildlife corridor!” she exulted.
It was an encouraging turnout, and I wanted to appreciate it. All these people, here to fight for the rights of wild animals to breed and feed and thrive: How could that be wrong? But I had to ask: Why does it matter? Why do we care whether carnivores, mesopredators, or birds of prey live among us? Will my life be diminished if P-22 gets hit by a car trying to find a mate? It would be sad, sure. But would it make any real difference to our well-being?
I asked the congenial but taciturn Jeff Sikich, who was standing quietly in the back of the crowd. “That’s not an easy question to answer,” he said. When I asked a friend of the falcon lady, she burst into tears and hugged me.
I kept asking, because it seemed important that these advocates have an answer when they stand before the lawyers and land managers who make decisions about city planning. I wanted the people I met to have better arguments in their arsenal than what one of the kids told me: “Because animals have the right to be here too!”
Months later, out walking with Ordeñana, I got closer to an answer. “If you want your kids and grandchildren to have a healthy, pretty park, you need predators in that ecosystem,” he said. “Their position in the food web is making sure the plants stay healthy and the hillsides don’t slide. Los Angeles looks the way it looks because raptors, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions keep it that way. We’d be a completely different city without them.”
River Simard can attest to that: His neighborhood has been incalculably altered since the big houses went up next door. Not that he’s the sort to despair. “It’s a terrible thing that happened,” he says of his ruined view, and all the animals that were forced from their ancestral routes during the construction. “But it’s also a good thing. If it hadn’t happened, we never would have made CLAW, and we never would have started trying to stop people from using rodenticides. And that would mean so many more animals dying.
“So even though it’s bad that they blocked the wildlife corridor,” he concludes, “
I still consider it a win.”
UPDATED Feb. 2, 2015
On Jan. 30, the California Coastal Conservancy awarded a $1 million grant to go toward the $3.5 million needed to fund the environmental and design studies for a wildlife crossing at Liberty Canyon. The National Wildlife Federation is calling on supporters of the project to match the state’s contribution. (Text “LION” to 25383 to donate $10.)