Something wild and wonderful is unfolding in urban backyards all across Washington state.
To their housebound delight, COVID-isolated families have discovered a trove of wildlife living outside their kitchen windows. Many in the Seattle area are catching regular glimpses of coyotes, raccoons, and Virginia opossums. Up near the Cascades, they’re seeing black bears and tassel-eared bobcats.
Normally unnoticed or ignored, these city-dwelling species are now the focus of the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project (SUCP), a joint venture between the Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle University that utilizes citizen science reports and camera trap data.
“The Seattle Urban Carnivore Project allows us to take a look at what species we have, where we have them, and how they travel,” says Bobbi Miller (’84 Comm.), wildlife conservation manager at Woodland Park Zoo. “We try to incorporate that data into urban planning so as we expand, we can make sure we’re allocating spaces for wildlife to move and live.”
Miller had enjoyed an impressive career in the Los Angeles and Seattle music scenes before taking a part-time job at the zoo 12 years ago.
“Caring about animals was always in the back of my mind and as a kid, I’d wanted to work at Woodland Park Zoo,” she says. Once employed there, Miller loved it so much she went on to obtain a zoology master’s degree.
Today, she is involved in the zoo’s local and international conservation efforts for species as varied as tree kangaroos, pond turtles, and grizzlies.
Those efforts include the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project, launched in 2019 by the zoo’s Living Northwest Initiative along with the companion Carnivore Spotter tool, which lets the public report sightings at carnivorespotter.org or through a mobile app.
Miller says the SUCP collaborates with city and county land managers to place camera traps in green spaces stretching from North Seattle, Shoreline, and Bainbridge Island, east to Issaquah. Eighty-plus volunteers routinely monitor the digital image cards and submit the data.
Together with reports from Carnivore Spotter, the information is compiled into detailed maps showing where each species lives. Those most adaptable to urban environments, such as river otters, tend to congregate around Seattle proper. Cougars are typically seen in the Cascades. Red fox sightings, though not verified, are sparse and usually noted north of Seattle.
“Since we posted Carnivore Spotter, we’ve had 4,500 reports as of November,” Miller says. “I’m surprised at the number we get and how quickly people wanted to participate in this science.”
Miller says their program is part of the Urban Wildlife Information Network created by Chicago’s famed Lincoln Park Zoo. The network is an alliance of ecologists and educators from around the globe who study the ways that wildlife adapt to and use cities. One of their primary goals is to collect data that helps urban areas deal with the struggles of managing human-wildlife coexistence.
“The Seattle Urban Carnivore Project really allows us to reach out to people and help them understand how wild species are interacting with them and their pets,” says Miller.
One example is dealing with contentious reports concerning cats and coyotes that are often posted on the social networking app Nextdoor.
“There’s lots of pushback from communities who want their cats to be outside and just as much from people who appreciate songbirds and don’t want cats outside,” Miller says. “Of course, there’s this issue of coyotes killing cats but to that point, we’re about to start collecting coyote scat to do diet analyses that will tell us what coyotes are actually eating.
“If the DNA analyses show that coyotes are eating rats and mice, isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that what we want?” she asks. “These wild species play an important role in our environment and SUCP allows us to address concerns and dispel some common myths.”
Miller says over the last 20 years, zoos have shifted their emphasis from entertainment to primarily education and conservation.
“We want people to understand that most zoos these days are really focused on conservation of species outside of the zoo walls,” she says. “It may not be an elephant or Malayan tiger but if you’re in Issaquah, you’re living with bobcats, cougars, and black bears. If you’re in Ballard, you’re living with coyotes, raccoons, and opossums.
“We feel it’s our responsibility to take care of species and habitats and be sure we’re working directly with people who live with these species, whether that’s Africa or Issaquah.”
Miller hopes that programs like the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project will encourage people to leave a few more hedgerows or green spaces in their yards.
“Maybe you can leave some milkweed or downed limbs or put up bat houses,” she says. “It’s not just carnivores, but also pollinators like bees and butterflies. We’re trying to take care of all those species who live with us.”