Wildlife Everywhere

December 7, 2017

D.C. police found themselves on an unusual chase through Northwest Washington one sunny summer morning; they followed a bear through manicured yards in the Palisades neighborhood. The incident, a few years ago, was the last confirmed bear sighting in the District, though hardly the last sighting of urban wildlife. But how could a bear even end up wandering through the nation’s capital?

Like anyone coming into the city, wild animals have their own “highways” into Washington. These natural corridors, including the C&O Canal, Rock Creek Park and Anacostia Park, are just one reason D.C. and its inner suburbs have an unusual amount of wildlife, despite being some of the most densely populated places in the country.

“D.C. is a remarkable city that has so many amenities for wild animals,” said John Hadidian, who has spent decades studying urban wildlife in D.C., first for the National Park Service in Rock Creek Park, then at the Humane Society of the United States. “It has to stand out as one of the most exceptional cities in the country.”

Washington’s geography and location also play a part. “D.C. has a tremendous variety of habitats and niches for different species to occupy,” said Hadidian. The city is located at the confluence of two rivers, with another major creek running down the middle. It’s also right on the fall line between the Appalachian piedmont region and the Atlantic coastal plain.

Here are the numbers: D.C. encompasses 24 unique habitat systems, is home to 240 species of birds, 78 fish, 32 mammals, 21 reptiles, 19 amphibians, and countless invertebrates, according to the District Department of Energy and Environment. Among these creatures are such notable species as bald eagles, river otters, beavers, coyotes and two tiny amphipods found only in Rock Creek Valley.

If you look at a map of the Washington region and squint your eyes so you only see the green park land, you’ll see a network that tendrils its way from the heart of the city far out into Maryland, Virginia, even West Virginia and beyond.

“There are corridors that lead into the city, such as the C&O Canal, which really connects us all the way to Ohio and provides a travel way for a lot of species that will come into the city,” said Hadidian.

These park corridors aren’t just travel ways. They’re also habitat for many creatures. There is also a lot of parkland in D.C. for a city of its size — in fact, Washington has the highest percentage of parkland of any densely populated city in the country, according to The Trust for Public Land, with nearly 8,000 acres of federal and local parks. Neighboring Arlington, Virginia is also high up on the list.

Even outside official parklands, streams and rivers in the city and beyond have wooded buffers along their banks, providing additional corridors for animals.

From these park corridors, animals find their way into neighborhoods. Danielle Reyes recently saw a fox, while parking her car at home.

“Right here,” she said, standing on her porch and pointing. “Right outside, where my car is right now, in between 16th and 17th Street.”

Reyes lives in Crestwood, less than a block from a major thoroughfare, but also about three blocks from Rock Creek Park. She sees foxes, deer, hawks and owls. Then there was the time she saw large beady eyes in her vegetable garden.

“A giant possum had strolled underneath our tomatillos and just sat there eating tomatillos. Who knew possums liked tomatillos?”

Wildlife is returning to the city

That’s another reason there’s so much wildlife in D.C. — more and more animals are figuring out how to get by in urban environments, by doing things like eating tomatillos and nesting in chimneys.

“It looks like there is more diversity, as well as a greater abundance,” said Hadidian, the wildlife biologist. Forty years ago, there were no deer in Rock Creek Park. Thirty years ago, there were no coyotes. Now, both are common.

Natural selection is helping these animals adapt to the dangers cities present, Hadidian said. “Some squirrels look both ways before they cross the road.”

Bill McShea, a wildlife ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, said animals are gradually getting used to people over the course of generations.

“Once they’re used to people, they are able to move through corridors that normally would have been too fearful for them. So they’re moving in through smaller cracks than they used to before.”

At the same time animals are gaining ground in the city, they’re losing habitat on the suburban fringes, as new development paves over formerly open space.

“Overall, if you took the greater D.C. metro area, there might be less animals than there were before because there’s more urban areas. But inside those urban areas there’s more wildlife than there was,” McShea said.

Of course, while there may be more wildlife in urban areas, that doesn’t mean every native species is thriving. Some, like the threatened northern long-eared bat are declining due to disease. Others, like the gray fox, are being displaced by other predators competing for the same resources, such as the red fox and coyote.

There are 205 species of greatest conservation need in the city, according to the District Department of Energy and Environment. “Those are species that either we have here and we want to make sure stay here, or species that we’re concerned about declining,” explained Lindsay Rohrbaugh, a fish and wildlife biologist at the department.

More animals, more conflicts with humans

As more wild animals find their way into the city, the potential for conflict with humans rises. That’s where City Wildlife comes in. It’s a non-profit that rehabilitates injured wild animals in D.C.

On a recent morning, animal control officers brought in two squirrels who had been hit by cars.

“He has some trauma to the right side of his face,” an officer said, holding up one cage. “He’s still breathing but barely.”

Paula Goldberg, the executive director of City Wildlife, says as more animals make their way into the city, part of the challenge is to educate their human neighbors.

“What we generally try to do is help people become more tolerant, to find out what they’re actually afraid of, when it comes to a fox living in a neighborhood or an opossum that might end up in somebody’s trash can or on their back porch,” she said.

This may be even more important in the future: in the coming years, there could actually be more and better habitat in some places, even as the human population continues to rise. Trendy green roofs provide habitat for migratory birds and butterflies, and the restoration of streams and wetlands is making parks even more inviting for wildlife, especially aquatic mammals such as the American mink and the northern river otter.

Biologist John Hadidian said eventually many native animals will likely return to the city, finding their niches in the urban ecosystem. Not all of them, of course.

“We’re not going to have packs of wolves roaming around Washington D.C.,” he said. “The whole city itself, however many square miles, is insufficient to sustain a wolfpack.”

So, while D.C. is a great place for wildlife, we’re unlikely to see wolves, bears, elk, or bison any time soon (unless they’re escapees from the National Zoo.)


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