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The City Journals

Study of wildland urban interface can help policy making

Jun 17, 2021 02:36PM ● By Josh Wood

The Wasatch Wildlife Watch Project captures images of wildlife like this jumping coyote. (Courtesy Wasatch Wildlife Watch Project/Austin Green)

By Joshua Wood | [email protected]

On the eastern edge of the Salt Lake Valley, Cottonwood Heights is more than the “City Between the Canyons.” It also lies near the wildland urban interface. This is the area where the living spaces of humans and wildlife intersect. In addition to convenient access to outdoor recreation, living in this area can also bring potential conflict with wildlife.

Researcher Austin Green, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Utah, has led a study of wildlife along the Wasatch Front. He partners with the local nonprofit organization, Wild Utah Project, on the Wasatch Wildlife Watch Project.

“My main goal for this project is to affect sound conservation policy and management,” Green said. “I hope that the research that we do can elucidate how human influence affects wildlife distribution and behavior so that wildlife managers and policymakers have accurate information in-hand.”

Green hopes this information will help develop strategies for balancing recreation and wildlife conservation.

Among the conservation and management policies affected by this research is the placement of underpasses and overpasses for wildlife to safely cross busy roads and highways. The growth of the area’s human population and the resulting spread of development can further encroach on wildlife habitat and migration corridors.

“It is difficult to say whether or not human-wildlife interactions or collisions are becoming more common, but we can say that human recreation is increasing, especially during the crazy times of this past year,” Green said. “In that light, it has become increasingly more important to understand how this increase in traffic affects wildlife behavior and distribution because, without this information, we are essentially running blind with how we deal with wildlife conservation and management in this state.”

Local residents occasionally spot wildlife not just on the nearby trails, but in their own backyards. That was the case for Cottonwood Heights resident, Gigi Jones, who watched a coyote walk through her yard earlier this year.

“It just walked through,” Jones said. “The animals use the dry creek bed by my house and don’t concern me. The coyotes were here first.”

Wildlife overpasses and underpasses have been used to decrease collisions on roads and highways by providing wildlife with safe means to cross roads. This helps preserve habitat and migration corridors. Green’s work has helped detail the use of wildlife overpasses and underpasses along the Wasatch and has shown that they help connect habitat.

“Throughout the Central Wasatch Mountain Range, the highest wildlife habitat usage is within our most protected areas, specifically Red Butte Canyon Research Natural Area,” Green said. “This is most likely attributed to the fact that Red Butte has been untouched by massive human recreation and/or development for nearly 150 years. This goes to show, and really highlights the importance of protected areas for establishing wildlife connectivity and source populations.”

Source populations are areas where surpluses in population growth can help alleviate decreases in growth in other areas experiencing more human influence. Wildlife overpasses and underpasses help connect these areas with other habitat.

The Central Wasatch Range is home to many species, but two stand out as the most prevalent. “Mule deer and humans dominate this landscape,” Green said. “It is amazing how well-adapted these deer are to both the Wasatch and surrounding Salt Lake Valley. However, we also see a fair amount of large predators, including mountain lion, bobcat, black bear and coyote, which is pretty amazing given how close these animals are to humans.”

Cottonwood Heights residents like Jones can attest to the close proximity of predators and other wildlife in the area. “It’s nice living near nature,” Jones said. “Seeing nature is a nice change from living in Chicago.”