In September, the Los Angeles area community of Seal Beach decided to start trapping and euthanizing coyotes in response to several pet deaths associated with the thriving urban predators. This controversial trap-and-kill policy is one of the most eye-catching developments in recent years as urban and rural wildlife boundaries in California become even further blurred — driven in part by the state’s crippling drought. Now in its fourth year, the drought has had profound impacts on humans and animals alike, with little end in sight. While the state was hit with a series of downpours in late November and early December, the several inches of rain only offered a drop in the bucket as far recovering from the drought.
Wildlife sanctuaries such as zoos and private facilities in California are dealing with the challenges of limited water availability and higher costs. The San Diego Zoo recently started collaborating with the San Diego County Water Authority in an effort to conserve water and the Wildlife Waystation outside of Los Angeles has been trucking in water as groundwater runs low. While many species struggle through the habitat changes brought on by drought, ocean acidification, and the expansive ecological damage associated with climate change and fossil fuel extraction, some species, like the coyote, are adapting — even thriving — in this human-dominated era.
This year a black bear killed a hiker in New Jersey for the first time in over 150 years as the bear population grows and spreads throughout the state. Polar bear attacks on humans are increasing in areas around the Arctic. And a new hybrid between coyotes and wolves, the coywolf, is rapidly expanding across the East as it combines the prowess of a wolf and cunning of a coyote — a bad combination for deer, another species that is thriving across suburban America. This inter-species breeding of the coywolf is brought on by human-driven stresses on species, such as habitat loss, over-hunting, and climate changes that lead to things like drought.
Seal Beach is just one microcosm of this national phenomenon in which human growth and resource demand is colliding with nature’s resilience. “The city of Seal Beach has refused to be transparent about how many coyotes have been trapped and killed by the program,” said Shannen Maas, from the non-profit Empty Cages Los Angeles, an animal rights collective. Mass said that coyotes will simply increase their population if and when it is depleted and that the best long-term solution to this problem is to “rewild” unused land in the community, as well as intense education and training about how to co-exist.
The question of how to save a species is never easy, but figuring out how to live with them can be just as hard. When water becomes scarce, animals already accustomed to entering urban or suburban areas will do so more frequently, and more desperately.
“During periods of drought, coyotes and also bobcats, mountain lions, and bears may be attracted to urban areas to take advantage of the artificial sources of water found there,” Lynsey White Dasher, director of humane wildlife conflict resolution at the Human Society, said. According to Dasher, coyotes are “opportunistic omnivores” that primarily eat rodents in urban areas but can also easily switch to scavenging when conditions change. “For this reason, they are probably much better suited than most wild animals to deal with the impacts of climate change,” she said.
Dasher said that the few coyote attacks on “unattended, small pets” in Seal Beach has been overblown, and that trapping and killing programs are often seen as a quick and easy fix for coyote conflicts in urban areas, but they don’t work for many reasons. She said a better approach is “hazing” which re-instills their natural fear of humans through scare tactics such as yelling or waving arms, blowing air horns or whistles, or dousing them with water. (With water conservation playing a big role in confronting the state’s drought, however, concerned California residents may want to avoid the latter).
The record-setting numbers and human impacts of California’s drought have been well documented. Cities are looking every which way to conserve water. Rural areas are just looking for water. There are new fines for watering yards, new plans to convert sewage water into drinking water, and new methods of providing water to communities in need, such as drought kits and portable showers. Politicians, business leaders, and major agricultural interests are engaged in a prolonged debate over how to divvy up the state’s future water supplies and voters just passed a major water bond targeting massive infrastructure projects.
With a growing body of evidence, like a recent study by the National Science Foundation, that the record drought in California is directly tied to climate change, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the state’s water woes are here to stay. Scientists have determined that climate change makes heat waves stronger and more frequent, which exacerbates drought. This effect is amplified by the reduction in precipitation that is already happening due to climate change in the southwestern United States.
The impacts of drought on animals may be less apparent, but they are just as varied. A lack of water clearly harms species living in the sensitive deltas and watersheds that are suffering, but for the more adaptable species — already wise to the ways of human intervention — the changing climate may not mean a reduced population.
“From a population health standpoint, this drought hasn’t significantly affected the large carnivores and omnivores,” Jason Holley, wildlife program supervisor for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) north central region, explained. Holley said that some animals have had to wander farther for resources, but that the long-term reasons people may be having more issues and sightings of animals like coyotes and mountain lions are “varied and complex.”
One of the ways the CDFW is preparing for climate change is to strategically conserve and restore habitats throughout the state, such as purchasing properties that can create habitat linkages along riparian corridors.
“Most of our riparian systems are thought to contain only five to ten percent of their historical habitat,” said Holley. “So it’s an uphill battle that we need the public and sister agencies to support.”
The Los Angeles area is involved in its own unique brand of wildlife corridor — helping animals cross over the city’s notoriously large and frenzied freeways. Scientists and environmentalists have been pushing for a bridge to be built across the 101 highway connecting the Santa Monica Mountains to more eastern ranges. Mountain lions living in the Santa Monica Mountains are threatened by a lack of genetic diversity — i.e. inbreeding — as well as a territorial limit that is especially problematic for a species that requires a large, independent territory. The bridge could cost up to $30 million and could start construction in the next few years if plans progress. When completed, it could be the largest wildlife crossing in the world.
Dr. Robert Crabtree, chief scientist at the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center in Montana and advisory board member for Project Coyote said that large carnivores have the problem of co-existing with humans. Any predator will shift to areas where there’s better food, he explained, especially during periods when their natural habitat is in decline.
“The long-term drought impacts on vegetation that affect the prey of the animals that predators feed on is also a reason for encroachment,” said Crabtree. He said he thinks all large carnivores have this problem, especially the ones that depredate, or plunder — such as coyotes, bears, mountain lions and wolves.
“The drought decreases natural forage for herbivores like deer,” said Crabtree. “There will be a relatively higher density of deer in urban areas where there are lawns.”
The Wildlife Waystation
While the prevalence of certain animals increases at urban-rural boundaries, one such facility on the border of Los Angeles’ urban sprawl is watching out for animals that never belonged in the region in the first place. The Wildlife Waystation is a non-profit exotic animal sanctuary a few miles into the Angeles National Forest, north of the San Fernando Valley. The facility is home to everything from lions, tigers, and bears to parrots and emus. It houses the largest chimpanzee colony in the western U.S. with almost 50 chimps as permanent residents. These animals come from zoos, former owners, and the wild. And they are feeling the impacts of the drought.
On an especially warm October morning, Martine Colette, who founded the project more than 35 years ago, discussed the impacts of the drought and ongoing water needs from her home and office deeply embedded in the middle of the compound.
“The cost of water and the need for water in L.A. is increasing every so quickly,” said Colette from behind a desk in a room overrun with animal trinkets and paraphernalia. “Water we could get for free before, we are now charged for.”
Colette also said they used to be able to collect surface water, but now “perish the thought” of doing something like that, as it’s not considered safe to drink and “somebody owns it somewhere” anyways. She said they have some groundwater on the property, but that the drought has caused the wells to run low. At the same time, increased temperatures elevate the overall demand for water.
“The hotter it gets, the more water you use to cool animals and the more water you need to clean things because everything bakes,” she said.
The Waystation now relies on water tankers to drive down the mountain about five miles and load city water for use in the facility’s systems — over the summer, 10 to 12 of these 2,500-gallon water trucks would make the trek up the mountain every day. There is a lot of thirst to quench. Tigers can drink up to three gallons of water a day, and there are some dozen of them living in the sanctuary. There are several hundred animals overall.
CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Ari Phillips
Collette, who believes that future wars will be fought over water, started the animal sanctuary 38 years ago due to the increasing number of wild animals in need of a home after people found they didn’t make good pets. She said people in the “Hollywood community” would try and call the zoo to donate their “ocelot or whatever” and the zoo would say no.
Meandering through the dusty confines of one of the several sections of the facility sounded like a safari and looked like a behind-the-scenes tour of a zoo as cleaning supplies and other equipment were strewn about. Currently the sanctuary is not open to the public, although it used to be and may be again in the future if permitting works out. Panthers perched on wooden plants, mountain lions gathered in small, corner cage dwellings and the chimpanzees listened to music. Crocodiles bobbed casually in small pools and birds of all sizes and colors lined the walkway, chirping in their cages. Construction materials were painted green to resemble a more natural environment.
Colette said she’s a great believer in educating the general public in how to cohabitate with native wildlife. This holds especially true during times of drought or other environmentally-challenging periods when animals may venture out of their ordinary range in search or water or food.
While these large carnivores may not be welcome in developed areas, they are crucial for the health of overall ecosystems. A recent study examining the role that large predators play in shaping ecosystems found that removing them can cause such a system to unravel. In California’s instance, the study found that as mountain lion populations dwindle, deer may become over-populated, thus devastating crucial vegetation, including broadleaved trees and shrubs.
With more species struggling to survive in a dramatically altered wild, this co-existence with unfamiliar species may become increasingly common as human populations continue to grow, urbanize, and demand more resources. With California and much of the Southwest gripped by an enduring drought, Colette said that camels have become the new exotic pet of choice. While she didn’t mean this as a drought-related comment, it seemed apropos to the context.
“Camels are extremely popular right now,” she said. “And in improper hands, a camel will kill you. It always amuses me when authorities have regulations against lions, tigers and leopards, but nobody cares about a camel.”