When most people think of conservation, it evokes images of remote wilderness. The idea that conservation only takes place in nature untouched by man is not necessarily the case, however, as human populations continue to encroach on wildlife habitat. Urban wildlife research is a newly emerging sector of conservation biology, focusing on densely populated areas across human-dominated landscapes.
While the overall human impact on global biodiversity has been severe, some species have adapted well to developed areas and thrive in urban landscapes. Deer, rodents, and many bird species have adapted to live with humans. White-tailed deer, for example, are overpopulated in many areas and require urban management. The state of Virginia has over 1 million deer, more than ever recorded. The National Park Service annually culls deer from Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., virtually within sight of the nation’s capitol. These animals can be a nuisance and a danger to public safety. Urban populations of wildlife need intensive management, but also deserve research attention.
An interesting study on coyotes and red foxes is being conducted on the University of Wisconsin Madison’s campus. Wildlife biologists with the UW-Madison Urban Canid Project are setting traps and radio-collaring 30 individuals of each species to monitor where they live and how they move within the city. Densely populated areas may serve as population sinks for carnivores, but refuges for other animals. However, the number of coyotes and foxes is thought to be increasing in Madison. A different study estimated that Chicago, the third largest city in the US, has at least 2,000 coyotes. Urban wildlife scientists hope to determine how these city-dwelling predators’ spatial use differs from that of their rural cousins.
Public awareness is key to conservation on the urban landscape. Some people are concerned that growing deer populations could draw more predators like coyotes and mountain lions into populated areas. To deter deer and avoid conflict you can grow less desirable plants in your garden and slow down while driving through wildlife habitat. Remember these creatures are wild animals, and that feeding or harassment of wildlife is a violation of the law.
There are many challenges to the emerging field of urban wildlife research. Most importantly, an educational approach must be coupled with scientific study to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and encourage coexistence. One thing is clear, the high-pitched scream of a red fox or the howl of a coyote is no longer only a sound of remote woods or prairies, but can increasingly be heard in backyards all around the country.
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