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The otter dined on a white sucker, eating in front of the camera for several minutes. CREDIT: City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks

The otter dined on a white sucker, eating in front of the camera for several minutes. CREDIT: City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks

Earlier this month a wildlife camera recorded images of the first confirmed American river otter sighting in Boulder in a century. The otter was filmed along the Boulder Creek, east of the city center. According to Christian Nunes, a wildlife ecology technician for Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, the otter was caught on camera twice: once on February 26th, and again on March 7th.

Shortly after the photos were released, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo released a statement that the critter caught on film was not Kitchi, an American river otter that escaped from the zoo three years ago. Kitchi would have had to travel from Colorado Springs to Boulder, a route that is more or less geographically impossible due to otters’ need to remain along riverbanks for food.

The river otter has recently been de-listed from endangered to threatened along its range in Colorado. Urban expansion and pollution caused otter numbers to decline in the early to mid 1900s. Restoration efforts that began in the late 1970s have helped reestablish otter populations in many of the state’s riparian ecosystems.

Links:

Daily Camera

http://wildlife.state.co.us/WildlifeSpecies/SpeciesOfConcern/Mammals/Pages/RiverOtter.aspx

Denver Post

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A study recently published on PLOS ONE challenged the common belief that natural predators have the most influence on elk disturbance, in the form of vigilance and lack of feeding time. The authors pointed to human  influence as the leading cause of disturbance in areas with a high volume of land use, vehicle traffic, and proximate roads. The study suggests that human interaction can affect as much as 80% of elk vigilance in such areas, surpassing the affect of natural predators, such as wolves, on elk.

The previous school of thought has been that natural predators are the leading cause of disturbance on elk herds. In instances where wolves and elk coexist in the same area, the ‘trophic cascade’, or trickle-down effect, of wolves on elk occurred in two ways: first, elk populations declined in areas populated with wolves due to predation; and second,  vigilance of the remaining elk increased in association with wolf presence. However, the findings of the study suggest otherwise. In areas where human interference is high, the affect of predation on elk herds is decreased, while elk vigilance increases in response to human-caused factors.

The article concludes that the new prerogative for conservationists should be examining the affect of human interaction on species such as elk that are highly sensitive to human disturbance.

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Living in an area that boasts a healthy deer population, and which is also near the elk herds of Rocky Mountain National Park, I have encountered many situations that demonstrate this affect. On a recent trip to RMNP, I witnessed a group of people approaching a herd of elk who were grazing about 50 meters away from a road. The people had parked their cars on the shoulder and were walking off-trail towards the herd. Approaching wildlife in RMNP is permitted in certain areas to the extent that you do not disturb the wildlife. In this case, however, the herd’s bull elk was clearly on high alert, and was monitoring the approaching humans instead of grazing along with the cows.

In Boulder, too, I often witness deer who have stopped grazing to monitor approaching humans. Shooing deer out of your garden is one thing–approaching deer when they are grazing on Open Space  is another. Whether we are in a national park or on local Open Space, our presence and proximity to wildlife can affect the animals’ behavior.

The study’s findings indicate an increasing dilemma within conservation efforts. Human interaction is a critical component of conservation support: generally, we are far more likely to support national parks and wildlife preserves if we are allowed to use the protected areas to view wildlife. Consider what would happen if humans were no longer permitted to view bison in Yellowstone National Park, or could no longer go bird-watching in Adacia National Park. Public support, both financial and personal, would likely decrease significantly. But what happens when human interaction has a negative affect on the wildlife these parks are created to protect?

It is a catch-22: national parks and wildlife reserves rely on public support, and that support can only be garnered if the public is permitted to access the parks and wildlife. But public access to wildlife is interfering with some species’ behaviors and restricting the parks’ abilities to protect and preserve wildlife.

Links:

Study Finds the Effect of Humans on Elk Behavior Exceeds the Effect of Natural Predators

Original Article at PLOS ONE

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The Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks Department has closed three bald eagle nesting areas in order to increase the chances of eagles nesting there. The Kolb and Weiser properties, as well as the Coal Creek area near Marshall Lake, will remain closed until July 31 or until it is determined that the areas can be reopened without disturbing nesting eagles.

Eagles begin seeking out nesting areas in early November, when the mating season begins.

Last year, three eagle nests were reported on Boulder County Parks and Open Space (POS) land. Those three nests yielded seven total fledglings: two each for two nests, and three fledglings for the third nest. Another pair of eagles was observed attempting to establish a nest just outside of POS property.

The closures are aimed at reducing human’s impact on nesting eagles. According to an independent report published by Boulder County Open Space, human activity near nesting zones can cause a loss of 85% of nests in the area. Human interaction can have several effects on nesting raptors, including visual and auditory disturbances. These disturbances, whether from, for example, the noise and proximity of rock climbers, are likely to keep raptors away from nests for prolonged periods of time. This may increase energy expenditures among adults due to “avoidance flights”, decrease feedings among fledglings, temperature disruptions in eggs, or in some cases, total desertion of a nest.

Links:

Daily Camera Announcement

Boulder County Parks and Open Space Wildlife Program Annual Report 2011

Recommendations for protecting raptors from human disturbance: a review 

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