Beavers, coyotes, large marine life are becoming increasingly common sights in Vancouver
Until a young buck with its own Twitter handle swam across Burrard Inlet to Stanley Park last year (and then got killed by a car later in the summer), there had not been any black-tailed deer living in Vancouver proper for more than 30 years.
That someone created a social media handle for “Downtown Deer”, who was known to roam through the park and adjacent West End streets, shows just how rare it is for a large animal to make its home within the city limits.
Long after the last herd of Roosevelt elk were hunted at the east end of False Creek more than a century ago, and after the last cougar in the city was shot in Stanley Park in October, 1911, the city hasn’t been a friendly place for large wild animals. North Vancouver may have black bears raiding garbage cans, the odd bobcat might be seen on Burnaby Mountain, and deer may frequent Coquitlam, but they rarely, if ever, venture west of Boundary Road.
And yet the city has recently become a haven for a variety of wildlife that have reestablished in the most urban parts of Metro Vancouver, from the ubiquitous coyotes, raccoons and skunks in every neighbourhood, to small but thriving populations of beavers in several city parks.
“We have this affinity for nature. We really do. Whether it is a whale in English Bay or beavers in Olympic Village, there is something very captivating about wildlife in the city,” said Nick Page, the resident biologist for the Vancouver Park Board.
Earlier in February, the park board unveiled a new “biodiversity strategy”, aimed at restoring or enhancing 25 hectares of natural areas in the city over the next four years. Concerned about continuing threats to the city’s natural environment — from habitat loss to climate change to environmental contamination to invasive species — the city is trying to create more natural spaces in which animals can thrive.
But the long-term impact of the settlement of Vancouver has not been kind. From the earliest days, the city’s creeks and waterfronts, from Burrard Inlet and Coal Harbour to False Creek and Still Creek, were industrialized, filled in or covered over. Efforts have been made over the last 30 years to clean up the inherent pollution and to daylight many of the city’s long-lost waterways.
A broad range of animals once found in Vancouver are now listed as “extirpated” or locally extinct: deer, elk, bears, chipmunks, red-legged frogs, the spotted skunk, cougars, martens, grey wolves, red fox, bobcats, the short-tailed weasel. The park board says the populations of many species of native birds, insects, frogs, fish, plants and small mammals are in decline. It lists at least 20 species at risk, including the western painted turtle, Johnson’s hairstreak butterfly, the Vancouver Island beggartricks, a wetland sunflower, and the western bumble bee.
Some marine forage fish, essential to the survival of some species, have all but collapsed. The surf smelt in English Bay are now just five per cent of their historical population, and the Fraser River oolichan, an oily fish once a keystone fish for First Nations cultures, has collapsed.
“That really has profound effects on the ecosystem if your shorebirds, seals, dolphins and those that feed on the forage fish are lacking them in the food web,” said Page. “There isn’t a lot we can do about the habitat — it is about ocean productivity and management of the fisheries.”
But it isn’t all bad news. The city remains a healthy environment for a number of species (both wild and introduced) that have learned to coexist with humans.
Earlier this winter, a family of river otters was seen cavorting in the ponds at Vanier Park, cleaning out a resident population of liberated carp and goldfish. Six areas of the city are now home to healthy populations of beaver, including Hinge Park in False Creek, Lost Lagoon, and the appropriately named Beaver Lake in Stanley Park.
Hinge Park itself has become an unusual gathering spot for urban wildlife. Created just seven years ago at the western edge of Olympic Village, the narrow park encompasses a creek that empties out in front of man-made Habitat Island. The small park has become home to a pair of beavers, coyotes, river otters, raccoons and waterfowl.
“How cool is it that you can say you live in Olympic Village and have beavers in your backyard,” Page said. “I think in the last few years we’ve seen more diverse wildlife move back into the city.
“Some of that is about the city reaching a new equilibrium. Some of it is about regional populations and how they’ve changed. It is less about what’s going on in the city and more about the increase of the populations across the entire west coast of the Pacific.”
Last year, a grey whale entered English Bay and First Narrows, likely lured in by the increasing supply of small arthropods and crustaceans. It was the first one seen in the harbour since a grey whale entered False Creek in 2010. Also in 2015, a pod of orcas entered Burrard Inlet, likely in search of harbour seals, which in their own right have become abundant.
In 2009, herring returned to spawn in False Creek, a testament to the efforts to clean up a once heavily polluted industrial area. Bald eagles have also returned in increasing numbers to Vancouver, going from five active nests in 2004 to 15 in 2014.
The re-establishment of some species hasn’t been without its problems. With beavers’ natural instinct to chew down trees and cause flooding, the traditional solution has been to either live-trap and relocate, or kill them. But with public generally opposed to the killing of wild animals and the Environment Ministry rarely giving out live-trap permits because of a lack of unoccupied territory in which to release animals, dealing with problem animals requires ingenuity, Page said.
“They are one of the components of biodiversity that have great advantages in terms of how people can see and interact with wildlife. But then there can be some broader management issues when they are mowing down the trees for food and blocking up drainage channels,” Page said.
The park board now wraps wire mesh around any tree it wants to keep beavers from nibbling to death. Workers frequently have to tear out the dams that beavers regularly build in Stanley Park, which then flood the trails.
For the most part, it works. But Page pointed out on a recent tour of Hinge Park where the beavers had climbed up the mesh and chewed through the tree above.
The city’s healthy population of coyotes can also cause conflicts. The animals moved into Vancouver about the time the deer population died out in the 1980s, and thrive on a healthy population of rats, voles, mice, squirrels and other small animals. But coyotes are also not averse to killing cats and small dogs when the opportunity presents itself.
Greg Hart, the urban wildlife program coordinator for the Stanley Park Ecology Society, estimates there are up to 300 coyotes living in Vancouver neighbourhoods.
“Coyotes are very well-adapted to our urban environment. We have removed wolves from most of North America, which was their natural predator,” Hart said. “Our urban parks and fields and yards closely resemble their natural habitat. Because of that, they have adapted well to finding squirrels and rats and live in every urban city in North America.”
While attacks are exceptional and cats make up less than two per cent of the coyotes’ diet, Hart says it is important to not let them become acclimatized to humans. He teaches a practice called “hazing” in which people attempt to scare or chase away the animal. Coyotes don’t like being challenged, he said, so yelling “go away coyote” or running at it helps to instil a healthy fear of humans, reduce conflicts, and protect domestic pets.
The Canada goose has also become a problem. While wild migratory geese head south in the fall, the city has a large population of resident geese that soil parks and breed like rats. It is a problem that Page says the city hasn’t yet solved, despite periodic egg-addling programs or culls.
“We still are challenged. If you look at tourists’ photos of Stanley Park, every third one has something about the geese. People love them,” said Page. “As their population increases, they are more and more of a challenge. What do we do about them? Do we just go on adapting and tolerating them, or do we start to be more interventionist and manage their populations?”