Embracing the Urban Wild

Steelhead, like California sea lions, are native to Puget Sound. Members of the salmon family, steelhead are the same species as rainbow trout. The difference is that whereas rainbows remain in freshwater throughout their lives, steelhead migrate from fresh to salt water. Steelhead that survive for two to three years in the ocean return to the streams where they were born to spawn with their rainbow kin. History has been far kinder to rainbows than to steelhead. Since the late nineteenth century, rainbows have been bred by the millions in hatcheries and planted in lakes and streams on six continents, making them one of the world’s most widespread vertebrate species. Steelhead, blocked from migrating by dams and diversions, have been decimated throughout most of their range, and they are now listed as threatened or endangered all along the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle.

The Army Corps renovated the Ballard Locks fish ladder in 1976, and within a decade as many as three thousand steelhead were making their way up and through it each year to spawn. This was not to last. During the 1993–94 season, with Hershel gorging himself at the base of the locks, biologists counted just seventy-six steelhead passing through.

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Approaching the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. (Photo by Washington State Dept of Transportation / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The pitchforks had been sharpened years before, but now the villagers were on the march. Seattle newspapers labeled the Ballard sea lions “freeloaders,” and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations called them “a gang” of marauders. These were vivid accusations in an era when national politics focused on immigration, welfare reform, gang-related violence, and tough-on-crime law enforcement.

This was not going well.

Wild animals have come to urban areas for many reasons, but now that so many of them are here, the challenge we all face is living together. In crowded cities, it’s easy to step on someone else’s toes, or in the case of Ballard’s sea lions, to eat someone else’s fish. Seattle’s sea lion conundrum is unique in its particulars, but the difficulties of living together that it — and so many of the other stories in this book — brings up are now practically universal. What do we really want out of urban ecosystems? And what would it take for people and wildlife to coexist in twenty-first-century cities?

The truth is that coexisting with wildlife, like any relationship, is hard work. It takes time, money, effort, organization, knowledge, patience, vision, and persistence. But it is no fantasy. Across the United States — in cities big and small, in both liberal and conservative regions — public agencies, private institutions, and civic groups are building on foundations laid and lessons learned. Their goal is to foster diverse, multispecies communities where most wild creatures can live their lives without being harmed by people just for doing what they do. Some of these creatures will cause problems, but more often they will educate, inspire, and, if all goes well, ignore their human neighbors. Even the richest, most ambitious, and most forward-thinking American cities still have a long way to go. But someday we may come to appreciate those now working to create wildlife-friendly cities in the same way that we now appreciate those who have worked to create parks, save species, and pass landmark environmental laws. We may even come to recognize cities as unlikely arks: refuges for biodiversity during an era of mass extinction.

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Luring wild animals into urban areas is rarely a good idea. But as we have seen, the ones that live with us provide many benefits. They educate us, spark our imaginations, protect us from and warn us of emerging diseases, force us to confront the forces degrading our habitats, and inspire us to be more flexible, accommodating, and compassionate. To see the good in wildlife and to work to coexist with it, even with creatures that can sometimes be annoying, is also to see the good in humankind and to work toward a more just, humane, and sustainable future. Cities that are more friendly to wildlife also tend to be more friendly to people.

But cities that seek to become more wildlife-friendly — on purpose instead of just by accident — face daunting challenges. The first is a basic fact of economic geography: over time, land in and around cities usually becomes scarcer, more expensive, and more attractive for development. In the United States, this has produced two countervailing trends. Since the 1970s, cities have spent billions of dollars purchasing, restoring, or redesigning hundreds of thousands of acres of parks and other open spaces, benefiting humans and wildlife alike. Meanwhile, construction has gobbled up vast swaths of additional green space. Most people probably prefer well-tended parks to scruffy hedgerows and empty lots, but it is not clear that wild creatures feel the same way.

Another challenge that wildlife advocates face is the swarm of laws, institutions, and stakeholders that have a say in local planning decisions. An urban creek restoration project may require the approval of more than a dozen departments, including the city’s Parks and Recreation, county’s Flood Control, and state’s Fish and Game, as well as the federal government’s Army Corps of Engineers. Even within a municipality, different agencies often work at cross purposes, such as when a line worker is sent to cut down a tree planted by a city arborist. Since most land-use planning takes place at the county level, counties are among the most important venues for advancing wildlife-related goals. Yet their boards, tasked with everything from approving affordable housing to handling hazardous waste and reducing traffic congestion, may balk at allocating scarce resources to wildlife-related projects. In such cases, local grassroots organizing combined with legal mandates and financial incentives from the state and federal governments can prove crucial.

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