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Urban Jungle: When development meets nature

Published October 22, 2006 1:12 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When nature meets rapid development:

First of two parts



Ty Harrison can point to all manner of wildlife on the 40-acre farm his family has owned for four generations. A small herd of mule deer has taken up residency. Elk have wandered in and out over the years. Even the occasional cougar pays a visit. And that doesn't count the dozens of critters and birds that den or nest on the property.

"They make it here because they're not harried," says Harrison, a biologist. "This is a place that has been managed for wildlife. It's good habitat."

Such a menagerie wouldn't rate a second glance in a place like Escalante or Tabiona, where living with wildlife has been the historical norm.

But Harrison's family farm isn't in rural Utah - it's smack in the middle of Salt Lake County's booming southern suburbs. And, though it's nestled among nearly 1 million people, it's hardly unusual in the Salt Lake Valley and its periphery.

It's an urban jungle out there.

Deer. Moose. Elk. Mountain lions. Coyotes. Bobcats. Bears. Badgers. Beavers. Porcupines. Bats. Rattlesnakes. Raccoons. Rabbits. Skunks. Eagles. Hawks. Owls. Geese. Turkeys. Cranes. That's just a portion of the vast spectrum of wildlife that either resides in the valley or wanders in time to time from what is known as the "urban interface" - the place where the densely populated Wasatch Front suddenly meets the mountain ranges and water bodies that surround it.

The Salt Lake Valley is ringed not only by national forests and wilderness areas, but also by three large swaths of land - the vast, privately held west bench and west slope of the Oquirrh Mountains, City Creek Canyon and Red Butte Canyon - where public access is either restricted or excluded, and where wildlife consequently flourishes. Directly to the north is one of the planet's premier stopovers for millions of migratory birds.

But such a large community of humans and wildlife does not exist without winners and losers, says a prominent Utah wildlife expert. And there is little doubt about which side has taken the brunt of the defeats. A glimpse of the roadkill along Wasatch Boulevard or Redwood Road near Camp Williams is all it takes.

The cost of development: Nonstop urban growth, particularly residential expansion that climbs ever higher on the hillsides and into the canyons and onto the ridge tops, has forced many species out and isolated others, cutting them off from their traditional migration routes and nesting areas. It's a human world. And only the hardiest species have been able to adapt.

"It's a double-edged sword," says Michael Conover, a Utah State University biologist who specializes in human-wildlife conflict. "We're really blessed to live in such a unique place, where large, densely populated cities sit right next to wilderness areas that are abundant with wildlife.

"But having an abundance of wildlife also means wildlife conflicts. At the same time it enhances our lives, it also creates problems. And it's a problem we have to address because both the human and wildlife populations are going to continue to grow. We've got to figure out how to live together."

Historically, this issue has been given short shrift in the West. One look at the east bench of the Salt Lake County - or Davis, Utah or Weber counties, for that matter - reveals urban growth that gave little or no consideration to the native residents.

The Salt Lake Valley and benches were prime winter range for deer, elk and bighorn sheep before the arrival of the Mormon pioneers. As the valley grew, though, that range gradually shriveled to the point where only fragments of it now exist.

"If you look around, there are pockets of winter range, but they are fast disappearing. And the animals that use that range will either decrease or go someplace else," says Ray Loken, a conservation officer for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

As the range for the deer, elk and bighorns disappeared, so did the large predators that followed. And that, environmentalists charge, has significantly impaired the overall ecosystem.

"The carnivores - the grizzlies, the wolves, the cougars, the wolverines - have all been expatriated. And those are all good-habitat indicator species," says Kirk Robinson, director of the Salt Lake City-based Western Wildlife Resources. "When they're not here helping keep the whole thing in balance, the habitat suffers. The watershed suffers."

Then there's the Jordan River, which during pre-settlement was "comparable to any international wildlife area in the world," according to the Audubon Society's Wayne Martinson.

"It was a riparian area in a desert that connected one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi and the largest saline lake in the Western hemisphere," he says. "What we've lost on the Jordan is something we don't even think about anymore. I can appreciate all the restoration that's going on now, but it's just a remnant of what was."

Ultimate survivors: Yet, in spite of that, many of these species still endure in the urban interface, if in reduced or scattered numbers. A few, such as moose, have actually increased in population in recent years. And some still find their way down into the valley itself and make a living here - in larger numbers than most people probably realize.

Harrison's family farm, located between South Jordan and Sandy, might be Exhibit A. Situated between two sections of the Jordan River Parkway, the Westminster College professor calls the farm - which dates to the 1880s - the largest privately owned open space left in the river's corridor. And he plans to keep it that way.

"You can see what's happening all around us," Harrison says. "The preservation of corridors like this is really important. People want to see wildlife. It's the politicians who never listen. They're all either developers or pro-development."

Though surrounded by subdivisions and commercial development on all sides, there isn't much mystery about how the wildlife gets there. The Jordan River is an animal version of Interstate 15, and the creeks and canals that feed into it provide a virtual road map for species navigating the valley. But most of the traffic flows late at night and early in the morning, when the human population sleeps.

Harrison and his brother-in-law, Richard Nielsen, who lives on the property, are pretty sure the deer migrate back and forth from the Wasatch, via Dimple Dell Park in Sandy, while the elk come from the Oquirrhs by way of Camp Williams. The cougar Nielsen found napping under a tractor this summer also likely came from the Oquirrhs.

Yet, wildlife officials say other deer herds in the valley are full-time homebodies who never see the mountains. And they are here for the same reason that raccoons, skunks, beavers and other smaller mammals have carved out an existence in the urban environment - life is good. Food, water and cover are abundant.

"It's nirvana for them," says Conover, the USU biologist.

Blessings to some: But for residents who live in closest proximity to the wildlife - particularly those who live on the benches - it is a mixed bag.

Many embrace the experience. Salt Lake City resident Mimi Green, who has lived near the mouth of Emigration Canyon for three decades, has received regular visits from deer, moose and rattlesnakes over the years, as well as the odd badger and porcupine. She has also heard and seen enough coyotes that she knows when the family dog needs to stay inside - lest it be snatched and turned into a meal for the neighborhood pack.

"We've enjoyed it all," Green says. "Do people complain? Sure. Everybody worries about the rattlesnakes. But we've always had rattlesnakes. You adjust. You learn pretty quickly not to plant tulips because the deer love them. You plant daffodils instead."

But as often as not, wildlife officials say residents are at least initially unprepared for life on the interface.

"People will say 'I had no idea. I've never seen anything like it,' '' says Loken, the Division of Wildlife Resources conservation officer, of the moose, coyote or, more rarely, cougar sightings he responds to. "And I'll say, 'Well, look where you live. You're on a mountainside.' ''

Others have embraced the native wildlife to the extent that they have made it work for them.

At Salt Lake City International Airport, officials have welcomed the emergence of red fox colonies on the airfield. The foxes discourage birds from nesting on the grassy expanses between runways. For an operation that is constantly working to negate airstrikes with higher-flying migrating birds, having the foxes police the grounds translates into one less worry.

"We didn't introduce them; they just kind of evolved. And we've never controlled them," says Gib Rokich, airport duty manager. "They do a very good job of keeping certain bird species, like ducks and pheasants, in check."

Planning for wildlife: Certainly, urban planners today do a better job than their predecessors of assessing the effects on wildlife and how to address them as they move projects forward. Newer developments include migration corridors, riparian areas and more stringent slope restrictions on the benches. Transportation planners are increasingly incorporating wildlife bridges and underpasses into road projects.

But that all has to be done with great care, notes Envision Utah planner Tim Watkins. And once again, it's a matter of balance.

"On the one hand, it's fun to imagine starting over and preserving all the greenways and drainages, but we might not want all the different varieties of wildlife that would come with that," he says. "At a certain point, we have to decide which species we want to attract to an urban area and which species we want to keep on the edge."

But at this point, as a U.S. Wildlife Service biologist notes, the onus is really on people who are living and moving into the urban interface to figure out how to get along with the native species.

"If people really want to avoid conflicts with wildlife, they need to figure out how they fit in this larger system," says Stewart Breck, who is studying bear behavior around the ski towns of Colorado. "Don't leave your garbage out. Don't leave birdseed all over the place. If we can get them to understand that, we can learn how to live more harmoniously with these species."

jbaird@sltrib.com

Coming Monday

* Humans have made it easy for many creatures to adapt to, even thrive in, Utah's urban centers.

 

 

 

 

 

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