Can Wildlife And Humans Coexist As Urbanization Increases?

Jun 14, 2021

A solitary mountain lion strolls along a path in the Wasatch foothills on a summer day, caught on a trail camera for a University of Utah research project.
Credit Austin Green / University of Utah

Animals are important parts of our communities and whether or not we see them, we are always interacting with them. Researchers from the University of Utah recently participated in a study looking at how animals respond to growing human development in Utah and across North America.

Austin Green is a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah who uses trail cameras to look at how animals respond to humans in the Wasatch Mountain foothills. He participated in a recent North American study that included 61 similar projects.

“Could we identify species that were pre-susceptible to the effects of urbanization based on their biological traits or their life history?” Green said, “We wanted to see if these traits could predict how species may respond to urbanization.”

Green said researchers used a standardized human footprint index to quantify relative human influence, things like population density, infrastructure, and land use, for different geographic regions. Images from the trail cameras identified human traffic patterns.

“About 33% of the total species we looked at were negatively affected by both presence and footprint. But 58%, so the majority of species, positively responded to urbanization. That effect quickly dropped off as urbanization increased,” said Green.

Researchers found species had different thresholds where they can no longer occupy disturbed land. Small animals with omnivore diets and fast reproducers did better than large mammals like moose or predators like grizzly bears or wolves. Animals like raccoons or mule deer that can use human resources like refuse or shelters or trails, also do better, said Green. He said this kind of information can help to better manage land development and outdoor recreation planning to promote human-animal coexistence.

Green said watching the camera footage was amazing, partly for the human behavior recorded but also to see how often wildlife would walk right down a trail a few minutes after a human was there.

“We are constantly interacting with these animals, whether we know it or not," Green said. "I’m on their radar, I’m being watched. We owe it to them to be as respectful to them as they are to us.”