As urban areas continue to expand, animals often find themselves sneaking into human-populated areas, often lured by the delicacies found in garbage cans, bird feeders and back porches.
When animals become too brave, however, problems can arise, and cities nationwide find themselves continually educating the public on how to respond — and how not to respond — to urban wildlife.
Over the years, Boulder residents have learned to get along with a variety of potentially dangerous wildlife species, including black bears and mountain lions. The city of Boulder has adopted a comprehensive urban wildlife management plan to help its residents coexist safely with these furry visitors.
Ironically, according to Valerie Matheson, senior urban wildlife conservation coordinator, the first phase of the plan did not pertain to black bears or mountain lions, but rather to prairie dogs.
“It started in the late ’90s, where a lot of prairie dog colonies were getting poisoned,” Matheson said. “There were some areas where we could protect prairie dogs and some where we could not, and there was a lack of efficiency with every plan going forward.”
As far as public opinion, Boulder was a city divided. Some wanted the prairie dogs left alone, while others were concerned they would hinder local progress and development.
“What the plan allowed us to do was look at the entire city and identify, through community outreach and public input, where were our best opportunities for protection,” Matheson said.
There are roughly five prairie dog colonies inside Boulder’s city limits. Of those, two are identified for long-term protection, while the rest are under interim protection, meaning they will be left alone until the space is needed for development.
When development does happen, a six-step decision-making process takes place to evaluate the safest ways to move the colony. For some projects, passive relocation may take place, where the prairie dogs are moved temporarily. If, however, a workable solution cannot be found, the prairie dogs are euthanized.
“It is definitely a last resort,” Matheson said.
Every now and then, prairie dogs find their way onto private property. This typically happens when a colony is living in a park or other location near people, and the population spills into yards and other areas where the animals can cause damage to landscaping and infrastructure.
In those cases, the city works with the property owner to find ways to discourage the prairie dogs from encroaching, such as filling in diggings or constructing a barrier.
As far as large carnivores, there is no practical way to keep black bears and mountain lions out of city limits. The majority of sightings happen in areas of the city near the mountains; however, it is not unheard-of for them to travel farther into town.
“It’s probably, on average, one lion report a week,” Matheson said. “And for bears, we’ll get anywhere from a couple of hundred to 500 bear sightings a year.”
With such a large number of sightings, it would seem natural for bear- or lion-related injuries to be fairly common. However, according to Matheson, they are not.
“It’s really rare,” she said. “We haven’t had injuries or attacks in the urban area.”
This does not mean there have not been injuries outside of town. In 2005 a mountain lion attacked a 10-year-old boy west of Boulder, causing injuries. In another instance, a female black bear knocked down a man who had unknowingly come between her and her cubs. The man suffered scratches but was otherwise OK.
Again, the best way to prevent wildlife injuries is to maintain a safe distance. Boulder continually educates its residents on how to coexist with wildlife safely. The biggest component is not feeding the animals.
City of Boulder Police Department Animal Protection Supervisor Janee Boswell pointed out that, in addition to state and federal regulations, Boulder has its own municipal code to prevent residents from feeding the wildlife, and anyone caught doing so must pay a fine.
Birds and fish are the exception.
Boulder residents cannot claim ignorance for feeding wildlife.
“We do a lot of education,” Boswell said. “There are a couple of components to that. Depending on what season it is, we’ll do press releases.”
For example, in the springtime, press releases go out informing the public about common baby animal behavior and warning them to leave baby wildlife alone. Social media, mobile apps and school programs have also been successful in getting the word out.
“We thought if we could reach out to the children, that teaches them what they should be doing and what they shouldn’t be doing, and they can help spread the word to their parents,” Boswell said of the school programs.