Saving Urban Wildlife

for Florida Audubon Magazine

Talk of wildlife in our cities and urban areas usually starts with images of road kill or nuisance encounters like geese on a golf course, coyotes raiding trash cans, an alligator invading a subdivision in Florida.

The urbanization of America has reduced our contact with wild animals to surprise encounters that are sometimes dangerous and occasionally deadly, usually for the animals.

A concept called “Watchable Wildlife” started putting a positive spin on human-animal encounters a few years ago. It is a loosely organized effort by conservationists, government agencies, and the tourism industry to develop wildlife as an economic resource, hopefully preserving them as a natural resource.

“Watchable Wildlife” is growing rapidly as part of the exploding popularity of eco-tourism travel. It is all about observing wildlife in natural surroundings, doing natural things, undisturbed by the human observers.

In urban areas sometimes the drawing power of unlikely creatures can surprise you.

Bat colonies under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas, are such a popular attraction that modifications have been made to the bridge to improve the bat habitat. More than 1.5- million bats fly out from the bridge at sunset nightly in the summer and fall as people sit along the river bank with picnic baskets and binoculars.

The economic benefits have surprised everyone.

A Texas study shows the average bird watcher spent $900 traveling the state in search of birds last year, and accumulated over $3,000 worth of equipment. The Texas Parks & Wildlife department is developing a “birding trail” that follows the Gulf of Mexico coast from Houston to Mexico. It leads bird watchers to prime viewing areas for migrating birds.

“Watchable Wildlife” is growing rapidly as part of the exploding popularity of eco-tourism travel. It is all about observing wildlife in natural surroundings, doing natural things, undisturbed by the human observers.

In Florida, tourists are taken by the bus loads from the theme park areas around Orlando, driven a few miles of out town and put on air boats that whisk them up and down a short stretch of the St. Johns River to see alligators. Not a shining example of what eco-tourism should be, but a potent economic force.

“People watch wildlife because it is fun, people expect to learn something from it,” says Bob Hernbrode of the Colorado Wildlife Department, considered by many to be the leading expert on wildlife viewing in the United States.

“It can be a powerful life changing experience for a person. They learn more, and care more.”

About ten years ago Hernbrode and others started developing the “Watchable Wildlife” idea.

Today, because of our rapidly growing urban areas in many parts of the country, they are putting more emphasis on improving wildlife habitat in and around major population centers.

“Urban wildlife has, by far, the most potential to impact on humans. After all, that is where the people are,” Bob Hernbrode says. “It may not be as spectacular as a National Park, but even a child watching a butterfly on a flower helps make a connection.”

The second edition of Colorado’s Wildlife Viewing Guide adds nearly 100 new entries where you are likely to spot wildlife, most of them in the urbanized “Front Range Corridor” running between Denver and Colorado Springs.

Large parks are being developed in many inner cities. Florida’s Department of Community Affairs has earmarked $72-million for city parks and open space land purchases over the next decade, more than double the amount spent in the 90’s.

“It can be a powerful life changing experience for a person. They learn more, and care more,” Hernbrode says.

Outside of Cleveland, Ohio, the community of Richfield is tearing down the old Coliseum where the Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA once played basketball. The 327-acre site will become a part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. It will be undeveloped and serve exclusively as habitat for wildlife.

Planner Linda Dahl of the National Park Service is one of those working on the Everglades National Park restoration plan. She says parks in urban areas have unique problems in preserving animal habitat.

“You have to decide if you are managing the park for animals or for people. The National Park Service policy is that people can be there as long as they don’t have a detrimental impact on the wildlife,” says Dahl.

She believes achieving a balance for both people and animals is becoming more difficult as parks become surrounded by population centers.

In a case like South Florida, cities are growing right up to the edge of the Everglades. Once living in swampy isolation, animals of the Everglades are now part of the sprawling Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-West Palm Beach urban corridor.

If the pressure on huge National Parks is growing, think of the stress placed on smaller state and local parks.

“At some point park managers may have to decide if they are managing for recreation or habitat. The two may not be compatible, ” Linda Dahl said in a speech to the 3rd annual Watchable Wildlife national conference in Fort Myers, FL, in October.

According to Dahl and Hernbrode, there are steps urban park planners can take to improve wildlife habitat and viewing opportunities in high population areas.

Urban parks have to protect animal habitats by limiting public access to those areas. This can be done by limiting parking space, having fewer and narrower trails, and limited viewing areas.

Each park needs to know its “carrying capacity”; the number of people the land can accept before it begins to deteriorate. Inventory the land and know what it is naturally being used for, and try to preserve these natural uses by developing park facilities around them, not through them. Avoid fragmentation of land. Cluster parkland to protect habitats, and allow for connections between habitats.

Dahl says the biggest problems for local governments are often the active user groups that want to use parks for things like ATV’s (All Terrain Vehicles), off road biking, snowmobiles, and jet skis. All cause some degree of environmental damage, and disturb wildlife.

“If you vote to allow jet skis, you have just made a big decision that you aren’t managing for wildlife,” she says.

If the pressure on huge National Parks is growing, think of the stress placed on smaller state and local parks.

Even less passive activities can be destructive.

“How many tubes or canoes can go down a river and still have habitat?” asks Dahl.

Preservation of habitat will be the constant challenge for growing urban areas. The economic pressure to develop all available land is enormous. Open space can be hard to come by in cities where a home lot sells for $300,000 and up.

Conservationists are taking heart in studies showing how leaving some natural areas in a city will actually increase property values.

A Boulder, Colorado study showed housing prices dropped $4.20 for every foot removed from a nearby greenbelt. A 1995 national survey found 3 out of 4 homebuyers saying green belts and open space were “essential” or “very important” in their home buying criteria. Similar studies in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts and Oregon found similar results.

In a society where value is usually defined with a dollar sign, the future of our natural resources and wildlife may depend upon our ability to show the price tag for losing nature is too high.

Links for this story

http://www.watchablewildlife.org/ National Watchable Wildlife organization

http://www.dnr.state.co.us/wildlife/view/index.asp Colorado Wildlife Viewing program

http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/birdingtrails Texas Dept. of Parks & Wildlife Birding Trails

http://www.batcon.org/ Bat Conservation International

http://www.nps.gov/pwro/rtca/econ_INDEX.HTM

National Park Service downloadable Acrobat file on “Economic Impacts of Protecting Rivers, Trails and Greenway Corridors”

http://www.dca.state.fl.us/fct/

Florida Dept. of Community Affairs, Communities Trust program

http://p2000.dep.state.fl.us/INDEX.HTM Florida Preservation 2000 program

http://www.dep.state.fl.us/comm/releases/1999/99-087.htm

Florida Forever, successor to Preservation 2000.

 

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