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Tips for living alongside urban wildlife

As it's the animal's space too, there are things to keep in mind when walking urban trails in your area.
Coyote have become an all-too-common sight along urban walking trails. Know how to behave around the animals who share our space, say experts. Photo: Nicholas Carter

This summer, there were hand-written posters taped up around a neighbourhood in southwest Edmonton by worried residents. They warned of coyotes seen in the area getting a bit too close for comfort, especially for those walking their dogs. 

This isn’t anything new. Towns and cities in Alberta were built on the home ranges of native wildlife. As human spaces continue to expand, wild animals are forced to deal with the consequences. While many species do their best to avoid development, and some take human presence in stride while continuing to go about their business, others have figured out how to thrive in these artificial environments.

According to University of Alberta professor Colleen Cassidy St. Clair, populations of wildlife that can exploit urban areas are increasing. This includes coyotes, and the results can be negative for us and them.

“Rates of attacks by coyotes on pets and people have increased and several dogs are killed every year by coyotes in Calgary and Edmonton,” said St. Clair, who oversees the Edmonton Urban Coyote Project. It’s not just coyotes roaming our towns, either. “Bobcats, lynx, and even cougars are sometimes seen in Alberta’s towns and cities. Cougars pose the most significant risk of injury, but the probability of an encounter is extremely low.”

It's not only predators and scavengers sharing our spaces. Mule deer are a common sight in small-town parks and neighbourhoods as well as wooded urban areas like the Edmonton river valley. Even moose make themselves at home in these places, so it's something to keep in mind while on a hike along wooded urban trails.

As visitors to Banff and Jasper have seen, elk have figured out that lawns and garden shrubs provide an easier meal than wild forage where wolves and cougars are more common. This can make for easy wildlife viewing during a vacation, but animals can be touchy about sharing spaces they’ve inhabited for millennia before humans came along, especially during the fall rut and spring calving seasons. I once nearly intercepted a testosterone-pumped bull elk while strolling through a Jasper suburb on a September night. Luckily, his shrill bugling calls announced his approach just in time.

Access to food is a big factor in human-wildlife conflicts in towns and cities. Often this is unintentional, with unsecured garbage, compost, and fallen fruit making an easy meal for animals. Other times, people intentionally feed wildlife when they come upon them. Images of folks feeding deer or bears from car windows have long been used as examples of exactly what not to do in national parks, but even something as well-intentioned as a backyard birdfeeder can have negative effects.

“About ten per cent of coyote scats we've measured contain birdseed, making it a very significant supplement to coyote diets, even without all the rodents it attracts,” said St. Clair. “A large proportion of bird seed provided by people is consumed by House Sparrows, an introduced species that outcompetes many native species.”

In order to live more peacefully alongside urban wildlife, St. Clair advises no one try to make the lives of urban animals easier by feeding them. “It's the desire in some people to help wildlife that causes the most severe form of conflict, which is food conditioning. This refers to situations where animals have learned to associate people with food.”

Not giving wildlife any reason to approach people and limiting their access to human-made food wherever possible is important for keeping us and them safe and healthy. What we think of as short-term help turns into long-term harm.

If you see an animal while on a walk along local trails, the wise move is to keep your distance, snap a quick photo, and move on while keeping your snacks to yourself. The best help city residents can offer is to treat their spaces, both wild and urban, with respect.