Georgia Straight, June 30, 2009- Adaptable predators thrive across East Vancouver

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Vancouver is home to at least 20 eagle nests; this year researchers have confirmed 16 eaglets. (Photo: HARRY KOLENBRANDER)

When you are hiking a wilderness trail on Vancouver Island or in the Interior, you are probably alert to the possibility of encountering a bear, maybe even a cougar. It’s also a situation that can’t be dismissed on the North Shore or in some of Metro Vancouver’s eastern municipalities that are increasingly intruding on the animals’ habitat.

But in East Vancouver? Your radar would likely never even be switched on.

However, early morning encounters with black bears in East Van are exactly what happened last year to a city road crew and a woman walking her dog. Provincial conservation officers tranquillized a bear in the 2100 block of Franklin Street, about three blocks west of Nanaimo Street, after a car struck it near the PNE. A few months later, police helped contain a mother and cub for tranquillizing near Hastings and Cassiar streets. Years previous, when the Canucks still played in the Pacific Coliseum, concession workers preparing hot dogs for that night’s game discovered a hungry cougar roaming the mezzanine and sniffing the air. Earlier this year, an overwintering red-tailed hawk wreaked havoc on the pigeon population near Templeton Secondary School. Eagles are currently nesting on port lands and adjacent to the PNE. And just after the start of summer this year, residents of East Van’s Cedar Cottage neighbourhood found an adult deer trapped in a fenced-in construction site.

These are all densely populated areas. Their inhabitants are used to regular visits by squirrels, skunks, and raccoons that raid garbage, gardens, bird feeders, and pet food left outside. Many residents of Vancouver are accustomed to these species as well, not to mention the roaming coyotes that own the streets late at night and are sometimes bold enough to hunt by day in residential neighbourhoods.

Why such an abundance of species in East Vancouver, though? People who make day trips or weekend camping jaunts to some of our nearby wilderness provincial parks would probably consider themselves lucky to view even a few of these opportunistic urban critters.

Robyn Worcester is the conservation-programs manager with the Stanley Park Ecology Society, an organization affiliated with the Vancouver park board, which supplies it with office and exhibition space in a building on the edge of Lost Lagoon. Among other things, the nonprofit group offers environmental-education opportunities for the public—on subjects such as how to coexist with coyotes—and conducts nature tours in Stanley Park. Worcester says that other than the relatively rare East Side encounters with bears, deer, and cougars, wildlife sightings are more a result of adaptability and simple observation and are probably fairly evenly scattered throughout the city.

“Essentially, the city draws in these adaptable species with food sources,” Worcester, a biologist in training, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “We are creating an environment with food sources for species that are food for other species.”

“I notice it [the large numbers] too. Urban wildlife is fascinating to me. The more species I learn, and the more I learn where to find them, the more I see. I work in an environment where I talk to people from all over the world”¦and they’re blown away by the abundance of wildlife in such close proximity to people.” She noted that our city is uniquely situated to be accessed by various creatures. “Between the Fraser Delta and Vancouver Island and the mountains, we’ve got a lot of places that animals can move around.”

A biologist and director of the ecology society, John Gray is also the assistant manager of animal services for the City of Vancouver. He, too, thinks the brushes with bears were a bit of a blip. “Bears are a huge anomaly in Vancouver,” he said from his office in the Animal Control Services building bordering Strathcona Park. “We can go five or six years without them coming in. We get the odd cougar, too. We’ve had a couple over the years.” He noted that the Cedar Cottage deer managed to jump the fence but, like the Franklin Street bear, was hit by a car and bounded away. “That’s the last anyone saw of it.” He theorized, only half seriously, that it may have ended up as “someone’s dinner”.

As far as some of the other species go, Gray said, he agrees with Worcester. “There has really been a growth in wildlife coming into Vancouver, a resurgence. It’s amazing what you can find in your community if you open your eyes.”

Mike Mackintosh was manager of wildlife services for West Side parks, including Queen Elizabeth Park and Stanley Park, for 37 years until his retirement this past April. He said there has been an increase in urban wildlife in recent years, and one species has really caught his attention. “It’s true—many of these species have habituated to human activity. Bald eagles are a classic example. They’ve learned that they have nothing to fear from people. Birds of prey are incredibly adaptable and resourceful. It’s quite exciting that they’re there.”

Mackintosh said that in the 1960s, there were only one or two eagle nests within city limits; now, he said, there are well over a dozen, including one near Malkin Bowl. “The eagles get to hear Blue Rodeo, and it doesn’t seem to bother them.”

As another example of adaptability, he said that pelagic cormorants have moved from their Stanley Park seaside cliffs to places such as under the Granville Street Bridge for protection from eagle attacks, and he pointed out the great blue heron colony in the park. “It’s one of the most significant colonies in the world, literally.”

But Mackintosh said the wildlife success stories mask a painful truth. “We’re looking at species that are highly adaptable. Other species aren’t. That’s the result of human development. I’m the first to appreciate that you are able to see some species that you weren’t able to see a decade or two ago, but it’s an illusion.”¦The city has densified dramatically, and vacant spaces have disappeared, so that’s not a plus for wildlife.”

Worcester agrees with that view. “The diversity of species is in trouble, whereas the abundance is not,” she said.

Being headquartered in Stanley Park affords Worcester a unique opportunity to study birds, with an emphasis on raptors. Because the Lower Mainland is located on a major West Coast flyway, vast numbers of migrating birds representing a multitude of species pass through. Add that to the resident birds, the ones who overwinter and breed, and the summer visitors, she said, and you can see why Stanley Park observers have recorded an amazing 230 species. These range from the common loon to the relatively rare black-crowned night heron to the exceedingly uncommon (for here) Philadelphia vireo and northern shrike.

The raptors, though, engage her the most. “We have at least 10 species or more, and that’s not counting owls and other species. We are exceptional for that.” She said there are 20 known eagle nests in Vancouver, with 17 nesting pairs known and, this breeding season, 16 confirmed eaglets. “You can’t beat our [B.C.’s] number of eagles, unless you go to Alaska.”

One raptor in particular has captured her admiration. “I think peregrine falcons are my favourite. They are definitely an urban-wildlife creature. They’re just a cool bird, and they’re the fastest animal out of water on Earth.”

It would probably astonish most denizens of the Drive if they knew what Worcester regularly sees in their neighbourhood. “I live on 3rd and Commercial, and I see Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, merlins, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and turkey vultures. Once I saw a Cooper’s hawk, a red-tailed hawk, and a bald eagle on the same thermal [updraft]!”

It’s the coyote, though, the urban trickster, that has generated the most attention. Several years ago, mainstream-media outlets shrieked hysterically for months as a result of a few highly publicized coyote-human interactions—none of which resulted in serious injury. A nip on the buttock of a girl who was playing near a human-habituated coyote in Vanier Park resulted in the shooting death of the animal. A few other nips and approaches and the disappearance of small pets that owners unwisely allowed outside unsupervised resulted in calls for the crafty animals’ extermination, even though this has never been successfully accomplished in an urban setting in North America.

Surprisingly, although the creatures seem ubiquitous—as evidenced by the disparate locations called in to the Stanley Park Ecology Society’s coyote-sightings number (which received 116 calls in the first five months of 2009)—their numbers are thought to be relatively small in Vancouver.

“There is an estimated 200 in Vancouver and 2,000 in the Lower Mainland,” Worcester said. This despite the fact that sightings have ranged from West Point Grey Academy to Yaletown to Beach Avenue to Kamloops Street to Chinatown. “They have territories,” she said, “with territorial pairs. And then there are transients who get kicked out of established territories.”

Gray, who worked with Mackintosh for 17 years, said physical and geographic features aid the coyotes’ penetration of all parts of Vancouver. “They were using the Grandview Cut until we developed it [with the SkyTrain], and they use the beaches to get from place to place.” He said old rail yards and tracks are also lures, and golf courses are popular places to hole up. “I think, though, there has been a general move in their population eastward for the past few years.”

Mackintosh, for his part, seems to admire the coyote, although he said there are occasions when they need to be controlled.

“We’ve had a few that were reasonably aggressive toward humans—showing no fear—and have attacked pets [five of the 116 calls were about pet attacks; at least three involved illegal leashing]. You have to take care of such situations.

“It’s a species that has basically moved its range across the North American continent. They will take and eat anything. They are smart, very cautious, and very social. They don’t pose any kind of a threat.”

It’s too bad the same can’t be said about us.