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Our wild backyard

There's a squirrel that lives in my neighbour's house. Every week or so I see it dash along the fence, spider-crawl up the side of house, and duck into the roof, occasionally with a pinecone in its mouth.

There's a squirrel that lives in my neighbour's house.

Every week or so I see it dash along the fence, spider-crawl up the side of house, and duck into the roof, occasionally with a pinecone in its mouth. It's amusing to watch, but also depressing since I know it's been driving the neighbours nuts for years.

That squirrel is just one of the many troublemaking animals around town. You've got jackrabbits digging in gardens, magpies eating baby robins and moose blundering through fences. Sometimes we ignore them. Other times, we call a trapper. And sometimes, as was the case with a moose in Woodlands last month, the animal ends up dead.

St. Albert does not have a formal policy for managing wildlife, with the exception of beavers. City council has asked for one by April. Conversations with local wildlife experts suggest this may be the wrong idea: our problem isn't so much troublesome animals, but people troubled by animals.

The wild wranglers

Many of those people turn to Robert MacDonald. The head of Wildlife Control Services in Duffield, he's become St. Albert's go-to guy for wildlife problems. You might recall him as the guy shooting crows on Flagstone Crescent back in July.

Doug Nothstein, an Alberta Fish and Wildlife conservation officer for the Edmonton region, also gets a lot of calls from local residents. His department handles moose and deer, he explains, as they can be threats to public safety and need special training to tranquilize.

But that hasn't stopped people from calling about everything from gophers to pigeons over the last 34 years. In those cases, all he can do is pass information along or refer them to a trapper. "We do public safety," he says, "and a fox is not a public safety issue."

Jim Butler is a wildlife handler of a different sort. A retired conservation biologist at the University of Alberta, he studies urban wildlife and welcomes it in his yard — he's got a skunk, porcupine and flying squirrel on his Edmonton property right now.

"It's one of the things that defines our city as a desirable place to live," he says of wildlife. "Where would we be without that?"

Room and boarders

Animals come to the city for three reasons, Butler says: food, shelter and movement.

Urban sprawl has cut into the habitat of many animals, Butler says, making animal encounters more likely. "Moose, especially young ones, are always looking for new habitat," he says. "Wherever we are, they're going to pass our way."

That makes it important for planners to create green corridors animals can use to cross town without running into people. Animals move between habitats through the forests, rivers and ravines that criss-cross our city, Butler says. "They come in, they have cover and often move up into neighbourhoods."

Edmonton's twisty, garden-filled streets have attracted hordes of jackrabbits, as well as the coyotes that eat them. Warmth from the city's buildings has made it a choice holiday spot for bohemian waxwings; the city has one of the largest winter populations of the birds in the world.

Not all creatures fare so well. Slow-moving porcupines are often killed on city roads, he notes, while moose become lost in back alleys.

Others are too successful. Foxes in St. Albert used to snack on leather gloves tossed by a local hardware store, MacDonald notes, while a recent murder of crows chowed down on the city's large songbird population.

One of the most common animal attractants is unsecured trash. The town of Didsbury called MacDonald this summer to deal with ravens harassing cattle, for example. When he investigated, he found out that piles of exposed trash were the reason the ravens were visiting.

He had the locals bury their trash more often and scare away the birds with propane cannons and flares. "When you took away the food source, you took away the problem."

What to do about wildlife

The first step in wildlife management is public education, experts agree. Take coyotes, for example. "It's always the number one issue," Nothstein says, which is why they've set up an information hotline for the animal.

Coyotes almost never attack people, Nothstein says. (The recent fatal attack on a folk singer in Cape Breton is considered an extremely rare exception.) He could recall two cases in Alberta in the last 10 years where a coyote nipped someone, compared to the 800-some dog attacks that happen in Edmonton each year.

Coyotes and foxes might act aggressively towards dogs intruding on their territory, MacDonald notes, and can attack small pets. Loud noises and aggressive action will scare both animals away. Catching or killing them is usually ineffective, Nothstein says. "Say we had a green light to poison and shoot every fox in St. Albert. A month later there'd be a hundred more in there."

These animals have limited habitat and will move into any niche they can find. Crows and magpies, in comparison, live anywhere, and can be encouraged to move.

It's also often counterproductive, MacDonald says. He recalls one case where a lady had a bunch of coyotes outside of her sheep farm. The coyotes, he discovered, were staying by the fence to catch mice feeding on the grain spilled from a feed trough — they weren't touching the sheep.

"She wanted the coyotes gone," he says, but that would have been a bad idea: remove them, and other coyotes that didn't know to leave the sheep alone would replace them. "If you don't have a problem, leave it as it is."

MacDonald suggests a three-step approach to wildlife management. "First off, find out what's attracting animals to your property."

Lock up your chickens, put away uneaten pet food, secure your trash and foxes and coyotes won't stick around.

If you can't remove the attractant, he says, call a licensed trapper. Moose and deer problems should go to the province, as they can chase or haul them out of town. Cities like Edmonton have humane traps you can use to catch squirrels, porcupines, and other small animals; St. Albert, notably, does not.

Only if those fail should you break out the guns. "I don't believe I have to kill everything that's a problem," MacDonald says, but in the recent case of St. Albert, he had to shoot some crows and magpies to preserve the songbird population. "It had to be done in order to conserve another species."

Edmonton has a similar policy for its wildlife, says Terry Bereziuk, the city's parks supervisor. Their park rangers actively teach people about coyotes and other animals in the river valley, and will post warning signs if one shows signs of aggression. Exceptionally aggressive cases are turned over to Fish and Wildlife. Otherwise, unless an animal threatens public health or infrastructure, they leave it alone.

Wild animals should be treated with respect, Butler says: keep your distance and don't try to feed them.

"There will always be wild animals in St. Albert," Nothstein says. "It's a matter of learning to live with them."

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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