#42: Dr. Peter Alagona – Cities: The Accidental Ecosystem

#42: Dr. Peter Alagona – Cities: The Accidental Ecosystem Nature's Archive


I live in a city of 1 million people that is part of a metropolitan area of close to 8 million people. Yet, at my suburban home I often hear Coyotes howling at night, turkeys gobbling in the morning, and great-horned owls hooting. There are Bald Eagles that nest near a school not too far away. And San Francisco is famous for its Sea Lions. These stories of urban wildlife are quite common across much of the United States and the world. And just a few decades ago, this wasn’t the case.

Why the change? My guest today provides a fascinating history and explanation of this phenomenon. Dr. Peter Alagona is an environmental historian and professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He’s also the author of the new book, The Accidental Ecosystem, People and Wildlife in American Cities, which I’ve had the pleasure of previewing, and will be released on April 19.

Peter Alagona (photo courtesy Peter Alagona)

In our discussion, Dr. Alagona provides a deep perspective, highlighting that even animals such as the Eastern Grey Squirrel were once considered exotic, and white tailed dear were a threatened species in much of the first half of the 20th century. He describes how things became so bleak in cities, and some of the reasons that some animals find success in cities today.

To help explain this, Dr. Alagona provides a framework for thinking about urban ecology and the creatures living in urban environments. We talk raccoons, squirrels, deer, mountain lions, bald eagles, wolves, and more. And even learn a bit about Dr. Alagona’s other passion – grizzly bears.

You can find Dr. Alagona at PeterAlagona.com, and you can learn about his grizzly bear project at calgrizzly.com.

So without further delay, please enjoy my discussion with Dr. Peter Alagona.

Did you have a question that I didn’t ask? Let me know at naturesarchivepodcast@gmail.com, and I’ll try to get an answer! I’ll add these Q&As to my monthly newsletter, so if you aren’t already subscribed, go here. I promise, no spam. I share the latest news from the world of Nature’s Archive, as well as pointers to new naturalist finds that have crossed my radar, like podcasts, books, websites, and more.

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People and Organizations

The California Grizzly Research Network

Books and Other Things

The Accidental Ecosystem, People and Wildlife in American Cities, Dr. Peter Alagona’s latest book

After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California, Dr. Alagona’s previous book

Coming into the Country by John McPhee – a wonderful account of Alaska and the Brooks Range

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Music Credits

Opening – Fearless First by Kevin MacLoed

Closing – Beauty Flow by Kevin MacLoed

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Transcripts are automatically created, and are about 95% accurate. Apologies for any errors.

[00:00:00] Michael: Dr. Algona, thank you for joining me today.

[00:00:02] Peter: It’s a pleasure to be with you. Thanks so much for inviting me.

[00:00:05] Michael: I’m excited for the discussion because as I think some of my listeners probably know urban wildlife is something that’s really important to me. Everything from the small insects to the coyotes we have in our neighborhood and and everything else I’ve really taken to observing them and documenting them, especially since the pandemic.

[00:00:24] And when I heard about your book, it just seemed like a very natural thing to have on the podcast. So here we are today before we get into the contents of the book, I’d like to hear a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in nature?

[00:00:39] Peter: Thanks again for having me, Michael. Like I said, it’s a pleasure to be with you, and I’m really looking forward to this conversation about this project I’ve been working on for several years now. I got into this after around a decade of studying endangered species, which we can talk a little bit more about I’m sure in a few minutes, but going back to before that, just the time, you know, in my formative years, when an interest in nature and the environment first got peaked.

[00:01:04] It stayed that there are a few different events in my life, a few different experiences that really got me going in this direction. And they come from different angles and point in different ways. I grew up mostly on the east coast in Pennsylvania and in Florida.

[00:01:17] And I was actually a child that I think I was four years old living in Hershey, Pennsylvania just outside Harrisburg when three mile island nuclear power plant melted down about maybe 10 or 15 miles away from where my family lived and we evacuated. And I remember as a young child, that making a huge impression on me.

[00:01:35] I didn’t know what it. But I knew it was scary and I knew it was something that was wrong and that really would stick with me in some way, although I had no idea exactly what that meant. So that was a really formative experience as a toddler actually in my life that later on when I was growing up down in Florida, I had the experience of living in a community that initially was surrounded by all Cypress swamps and pine forests and hardwood, Oak hammocks, and seeing a lot of that landscape really just disappear in front of my eyes and being converted into suburbs that all really seem like the same place to me.

[00:02:12] And as a matter of fact, I remember going back years later and finding myself at the corner at the intersection that I knew because I knew the names of the streets, but I was completely disoriented as to where I actually was because none of the markers that I remember that signified that place. It could have been any place actually that I was in at that point.

[00:02:31] And that made a big impression on me too. And then later on, I had the experience that a a lot of folks have who are fortunate enough to be able to visit some of the great Western landscapes in the U S and feel inspired by them and go to some of the national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and and to experience those places and to start to put this all together and realize how special those places were, but also how most people’s everyday experiences of the environment and of nature were shaped by the kinds of things that I had seen as a younger child.

[00:03:02] And so these are some of the influences. I think that got me thinking about the environment in general, and then later about wildlife and endangered species and habitats and places where most people.

[00:03:12] Michael: So when you were in Florida and you noticed the suburbs being built and some of those, I think you said there that pine and Oak hammock Habitat’s disappearing, did you recognize it as a habitat disappearing or was it just an observation that later you made that connection to.

[00:03:28] Peter: That’s a really great question. I think at the time I did be recognize it as a habitat so much, which is a really important thing for the way that I think now about urban environments, think of them as habitats And as multi-species communities that are based in those habitats.

[00:03:45] But at the time I think I thought of them more as landscapes. And so these were places that I knew that I thought I knew. And even though the location remained the same, the place was utterly transformed. And so trying to think of, what it meant to to be in a place, to dwell in a place.

[00:04:02] And yet. Totally dislocated. In terms of anything that you remembered about the landscape and valued in that landscape? That was what I felt at the time. It was only later that I came to understand these as ecological transformations and ecological reverberations. That meant something for the habitats of all the creatures that live there, including the human ones, me and my family and friends.

[00:04:24] Michael: Yeah, I was interested in that answer because I was thinking back to when I was a kid and, there was some vacant, lots around where I grew up in, I didn’t really think much of it as they slowly filled in with more suburbia. So it’s clear that you had this sort of instinct even back then, and you said something that I was not really prepared to speak with you about today and you said that you did some studying of endangered species.

[00:04:46] How did you get involved in endangered species studies?

[00:04:48] Peter: When I was in college, this was back in the early nineties. I was in the undergraduate university from 1991 to 95. And at that time I was just starting to explore some of these environmental interests in a little bit more of an academic or systematic way, taking classes and learning from faculty and mentors a little bit.

[00:05:10] And at that time in the early nineties, you may know you may have. this was a time when there was a tremendous amount of controversy over the conservation of a number of endangered species particularly in the American west but in a number of places throughout the country, including the Southeast, including in Hawaii and elsewhere.

[00:05:29] And I remember being an undergraduate student and watching these news reports of people protesting and fighting about, fate of the Northern spotted owl or the desert tortoise or the California condor, for example, and wondering how we had gotten to this point where the conservation of species have become so controversial.

[00:05:50] So contested that people were behaving almost as if their lives depended on the resolution of these conflicts in a particular way. And so I got really interested in that. I was also interested in history. I started studying environmental. Yeah. And so for the first really more than decade of my career, I ended up trying to answer this question that I had come up with, as an undergraduate student, which is how did we get to the point where these discussions, these debates got so controversial?

[00:06:17] What were the set of events? What was the history there? What were the deep causes? What was the relationship between science and the law, for example, in political debate and discourse. And and the graduate school, I studied those things. I ended up writing a book about this called after the grizzly endangered species in the politics of place in California.

[00:06:35] That was my first book and it explored a lot of these issues. But then around the time that I finished that book, I started to realize that I had gotten into this in part, because I was interested in wildlife and I’d spent the last 10 years or so writing about why people were fighting with each other.

[00:06:51] And in fact, I wasn’t really thinking about when I was thinking about wild creatures. I wasn’t thinking about the ones that people mostly saw or like. I was thinking in writing about creatures, that for the most part, people didn’t see almost by definition because they were endangered species in many cases, not in all cases, but in many cases.

[00:07:11] And so this led me to start to think a little bit more about urban wildlife and about human wildlife interactions and about the kinds of creatures that people see on a daily basis, or at least regularly in the communities where they live and work and play.

[00:07:27] Michael: It seems like a natural transition then to your current project and your current book. So it’s probably best for you just to describe it in your own words, rather than me. Try to describe it. So can you tell me about your latest book?

[00:07:40] Peter: Sure. Yeah. So I started working on this book?

[00:07:43] back. Let me be around 2015 or so. And that was at around this time when I started to get much more interested in a species that people interact with, like I said, on a daily basis. So I started to explore this and I very quickly realized that the field Of urban ecology, which really hadn’t even been much in the field at all, going back to the 1980s and beforehand had suddenly sometime around the late nineties or early two thousands really started to boom.

[00:08:13] There was a tremendous amount of research, a lot of energy, a lot of interest academically, but also from other kinds of institutions and from the public in general. And so I started reading this literature and noticing that the things that people were pointing out in the literature were actually things that I had been seeing increasingly in my own community.

[00:08:32] And hadn’t really put together as a single story. But then as I got further into it, I realized that there was a profound kind of paradox or Canadian. That really hadn’t been explained in all of this literature in all of these studies that folks have been doing over the years, over recent years in urban ecology.

[00:08:50] And that was why cities in some parts of the world, including the United States, much of north America, but also parts of Europe, east Asia, and elsewhere. Why some cities had seemed to fill up with wild creatures, including some creatures that people never would have expected to see there and decades earlier.

[00:09:08] Well, At the same time, we were hearing this relentless drumbeat of reports from around the world about wildlife populations declining in so many other habitats and ecosystems. Why were some of the most human dominated environments on earth filling up with wild creatures at the same time that wild creatures were disappeared.

[00:09:30] From even some of the more pristine areas, some of them were protected areas that people had set aside for that purpose. And so that’s the paradox. That’s the conundrum that sort of got me thinking about urban wildlife, thinking about how we got to this point in American cities in particular, but also what it means to think about living in rich multi-species communities, coexisting with other kinds of creatures, even in these human dominated place.

[00:09:56] Michael: Of course, I have a much deeper appreciation after having read your book. But I, the question that comes to my mind with that paradox is these days when I think of the. Maybe before I read your book, let me preface it that way. When I would think of, of the sorts of animals that you see in the urban environment, they seem to have some characteristics of, a generalist lifestyle.

[00:10:19] And it was pretty easy for me to dismiss it as, oh yeah. These are just the select few that seem to do well around people. I’m wondering when you started on this endeavor, was that even in the lexicon at the time, like that sort of thinking or could you already tell it was a much more complex space than what I just generalized.

[00:10:39] Peter: So going back a couple of decades, there’s been a basic kind of. In urban ecology, that’s become a little bit more complicated since then people have added to it and critiqued it. But I think it’s worth mentioning even now, which is that in some ways you can think of the kinds of creatures around cities as falling into three categories.

[00:10:59] There are the urban exploiters. These are the creatures that do really well in urban environments and often achieve levels of population density that far exceed anything that you would see in those species. In other kinds of natural spaces. These are also the kinds of preachers that you see in city after city, as you go around the continent and around the world.

[00:11:22] So we all know examples of these right Norway, rats or Eastern gray squirrels, or crows pigeons, all of these kinds of creatures that we see over and over again at high population densities in many cities, those are the urban exploiters. Then there’s a group of creatures that can do really well.

[00:11:39] And. But they often thrive along the edges in the areas where they also have access to safe greenspace, but can commute into the cities where they then take advantage of the rich environments that are presented to them in the cities, with all this extra food and water and shelter, and then use those spaces to also achieve pretty high population densities.

[00:12:01] And so animals that fall into that category would include raccoons, foxes, skunks, coyotes, some Hawks, some , large weighting birds. These are all examples of the kinds of creatures that are urban adapters. These are urban adapters. That’s the second category. So the exploiters and the adapters, and then there’s a third category.

[00:12:24] And these are the avoiders. These are the kinds of creatures that you rarely see in cities. And when you do see them there, it’s by accident. They’re trying to get through it to another patch of green habitat, or they’re trying to avoid it, or they ended up there by some other kind of new. And so these include many large carnivores like mountain lions.

[00:12:42] They also include creatures that for one reason or another are just intolerant of being around humans. And so they’re the, avoiders, they’re the ones that stay away from cities. So that framework has been around for quite a while and people have used it to investigate the reasons behind and the ways in which some species become exploiters versus adapters versus avoiders.

[00:13:03] We now have much more, a much richer body of literature. That’s actually trying to parse out in cases where we do have species that do well in urban areas. What are the actual kinds of adaptations and qualities that allow them to take advantage of those habitats while also avoiding the hazards that those spaces.

[00:13:21] Michael: That’s a nice, clean way to think about it. And do, have you seen any evidence of any animals sort of jumping categories evolution or adaptation happening in real.

[00:13:32] Peter: So I think that in a way, all of the creatures that are urban exploiters have at some point or another jump that line. And in some cases it was a long time ago. How sparrows, for example, did that a long time ago pigeons did that a long time ago. And so we often don’t see this happening in real.

[00:13:51] time.

[00:13:51] But you can be pretty sure that any creature that is existing at high density and seeming to thrive in urban environments did that at one point or. In some cases, we see areas where certain kinds of creatures do really well in some cities and become something like exploiters. But don’t do as well in other cities because of the environments or because of the cause of human behaviors, because of the built environment, something about the city is less conducive to them.

[00:14:19] And so an example of that would be in some European cities, there are very large numbers of red foxes. Red foxes are common in many American cities, but they tend to be a little bit rarer. And so they would probably fall into the category of adapters. Whereas in some of those European cities, there are almost starting to become something like exploiters.

[00:14:39] And so the context matters as well as the species and as well as changes over time as well.

[00:14:44] Michael: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. And one of the things that you started to touch on, I guess what the concept of exploiters is that there are resources in cities. So what are some of the other macro reasons why some of these animals have found success in the urban Indian.

[00:14:59] Peter: So I think if you use zoom out to the 36,000 foot level, and you look at the United States in particular, which is where I focused for this book, and some of these ideas apply to other places as well. There are really four kinds of groups of reasons that wildlife has returned or colonized many American cities.

[00:15:20] And so one has to do with jobs. The cities that we built, particularly in the United States, but in many other parts of the world, tend to be built in places that are really, or were really biologically productive and rich before the city was constructed. So there are a lot of reasons for that. Some cities are along river corridors.

[00:15:40] Many cities are at eco tones between a couple of different kinds of ecosystems. And they were there because people set up shop in order to harvest resources like timber or tap water or mining in the surrounding areas. Some cities are built close to the coastline. Many cities are in areas where freshwater and saltwater meat subsidies are built on flat areas.

[00:16:03] And the only places to build a flat area was in a former wetland or former swamp along the coastline. And so these are all examples of how cities have tended to be built in areas that naturally attract wildlife. If given the chance, many of these creatures will come back, even though many of their populations were decimated in north America during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

[00:16:26] So That’s geography. History is important too. Like I said, many of populations of wildlife that are common in cities now were decimated decades or centuries ago, but they came back in part because of changes in the city, changes in popular culture, changes in the landscape, like more parks and planting of trees, all these things enabled preachers to come back after they were eliminated for many areas, Eastern gray squirrels are an example of that.

[00:16:54] Although many people don’t know that they had actually been eliminated from large parts of Eastern north America and then had to be recolonized or reintroduced in some cases, ecology is also. So these are now cleaner and greener in many cases than they were ever before. Pollution has been reduced in many of these areas, but they’re also enriched patches of habitat.

[00:17:15] They have way more food and water in many cases, for example then the surrounding natural habitats for creatures that can access them. And then in addition to geography, history and ecology, there’s also the biology of the particular species. And so some species are able to do really well in cities because they have qualities that enable them to thrive.

[00:17:35] They are maybe flexible in terms of their behavior. There may be intelligent in terms of being able to learn new behaviors, to try new things, to be curious, and to figure out ways to navigate urban spaces and tap recently. Many of them tend to uh, have relatively large brains. It seems like all this is controversial in the literature which is maybe associated with that curiosity and behavioral flexibility.

[00:18:00] Most of them are omnivorous. Omnivores tend to do really well in urban spaces because they can eat a wide variety of things that the city provides. And a lot of them tend to be social meaning that they can tolerate being around large numbers, not only of people, but also other members of their own species.

[00:18:20] So if you add this up, flexible, intelligent, omnivorous, and social, what does that sound like? That sounds like humans. The creatures that we share urban environments with that do well in cities tend to have some qualities that are similar to ours, even though we often don’t want to admit it. When we’re talking about creatures like rats and pigeons,

[00:18:40] Michael: That’s a really fascinating. Parallel to draw. And I wanted to back up for just a minute. When you talk about the Eastern gray squirrel, there was an anecdote in the book that was really surprising to me. You discuss how in 1856 in Manhattan, there is an Eastern gray squirrel that was spotted in the city, and it was an oddity at the time to have an Eastern gray squirrel.

[00:19:04] And to me, that was such a powerful anecdote because it makes you realize how different the ecology was back in 1856.

[00:19:13] Peter: So not only was it Eastern gray, squirrels spotted and caused a ruckus, lower Manhattan drawing spectators, dozens of spectators and making the news in 1856, but it was a squirrel that escaped from a Cajun somebodies apartment across the street.

[00:19:29] Michael: Oh.

[00:19:30] Peter: So there are a few questions here. First of all, what was the squirrel doing in a cage in someone’s?

[00:19:35] So squirrels were rare enough at that time that people kept them as exotic pets, believe it or not. And so it escaped from someone’s apartment because someone was keeping it as a pet. And we know of a lot of instances of that from the historical record, squirrels Eastern gray squirrels had been eliminated from much of their historic range in the Eastern United States for a bunch of different reasons.

[00:19:58] They were harvested for their, for, and for food. They were eradicated as pests and they lost a lot of their natural habitat. As forests were felled in that part of of the continent as people settled agricultural areas and built cities and other things. And so squirrels were pretty much gone by the early 19th century and most of the areas of their historic range, but then beginning in the late 19th century, a few things started to bring them.

[00:20:26] When was that some parts of that region became more forest did again, after people started abandoning farms, but also planting more trees in cities and establishing more green parks and cities. And then another thing that happened was that people actually brought them back and reintroduce them to many cities on the east coast, including places like Philadelphia and new Haven and New York as a project to not really rewild cities, but to reintroduce people to a native creature that many folks thought would be at the time, at least in the Victorian idea of the day, a good influence to help develop moral character among young people in cities who could see squirrels taking care of their young, who could feed them and care for them.

[00:21:08] And you could learn to live alongside these animals as a kind of civic instruction about how to live with other kinds of neighbors, including people in those kinds of urbanized.

[00:21:18] Michael: I would’ve never guessed of a squirrel as a model for human behavior, but apparently so, and the other funny thing that is just the reason, I think why the Eastern gray squirrel anecdote resonated with me so much is, I live in the San Francisco bay area. And strangely enough, most people when they come out here for the first time, they’re expecting to see the Western gray squirrel, a different species altogether.

[00:21:41] And in fact, the Eastern gray squirrel is the dominant squirrel in the urban area here. It’s done so well. It’s actually pushed the native squirrel out into the more natural lands that we have surrounding the bay area. So it’s a, it’s another paradox,

[00:21:55] Peter: I think that there’s something really profound about that actually, which is that for some creatures, maybe the ones That we might think of as being urban avoiders. For some creatures, cities fragment natural habitats and prevent them from getting from one place to another they’re obstacles.

[00:22:14] There are no go zones. There are places that represent habitat loss as opposed to habitat game for some other creatures, urban areas, or like an archipelago of habitat that they can use to move from one place to another. And that they can use to colonize areas outside of their native range, that they may not otherwise have been able to colonize, but they can because of the habitats and because of the resources that those urban spaces offer, which are somehow similar to urban spaces and other areas, and perhaps even in some ways, similar to aspects of their native, right.

[00:22:52] Michael: That makes sense. And it maybe ties into, before we started recording, we were talking a little bit about the work that Beth Pratt has done with wildlife crossings and connectivity. So talking about urban areas, sometimes looking like an archipelago, how do you see cities, especially some of these mega cities that, that are forming in say the New York, Boston, Philadelphia area, or other very large cities.

[00:23:19] How did they play a role in terms of connectivity? Are they, are there things we need to do? I’m struggling here to formulate a question, so maybe I’ll just. At a higher level. How do you see these mega cities impacting wildlife?

[00:23:33] Peter: So I think. Urbanization is a process of fragmentation of natural habitats. And I think it bears mentioning at this point, and it’s extremely important to understand that most creatures do not thrive in cities, cities, eliminate natural habitat. And when they do that, they eliminate viable suitable habitat for the vast majority of species that are adapted to particular kinds of ecological conditions that have remained in their native range for quite some time. And so they’re adapted to that. They can, you know, flexible enough or adoptable enough to be able to move into new areas over times when change is relatively slow. But urbanization often happens very quickly compared to ecological and evolutionary change. And So for the vast majority of creatures, urban environments are just not really viable spaces, but for some creatures.

[00:24:28] And in some cases, the ones for which this is true has surprised us for some creatures, urban environments provide unprecedented kinds of opportunities. And so the end result is that in most cases, for most groups, for most taxonomic groups, what we find is that although there are fewer total number of species in urban areas compared to more natural habitats, the, species that are there often thrive and reach numbers and densities greater than in those natural spaces.

[00:25:02] And so I think that’s really just important to remember when we talk about this in general, urbanization is a process of having habitat fragmentation of natural areas. And so this impacts a wide variety of species, but in particular, in the United States, it’s such an interesting case because

[00:25:19] the dominant form of urban growth in the United States from world war II and even dating back a little bit before that to today has largely been suburbs, suburban areas. Those are the kinds of spaces that really provide significant opportunities and that don’t represent fragmentation, but represent new habitat frontiers.

[00:25:41] And so when you look for example, at some exotic species like number of parents, so there are parents species that live in many cities throughout the United States that in some cases have arrived there because they’re apart, they were released from captivity. They’ve gathered into flocks. There are a variety of different stories around that in different cities.

[00:26:00] But they live in many American cities. They really can’t go out into most native habitats in north America because the resources just aren’t there. And so like those Eastern gray squirrels in bay, Many parrot populations are really limited to urban areas because it’s only those urban areas that provide the warmth, the water, the horticultural, exotic plants with their fruits and nuts that these parents need to be able to survive.

[00:26:27] although urban areas for admin, natural habitats, the way different species experience that fragmentation really differs depending on what they can do in those urban spaces and whether they can take advantage of the opportunities that are pre.

[00:26:41] Michael: So the, you could even look at an urban area. The suburban portion is a different habitat, a different ecosystem all together from the core dense urban areas.

[00:26:53] Peter: A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to define what a city or an urban area is. And there, there are a million different ways to do this. You can do this by population density. You can do this using satellite imagery of the built environment. You can do this in many kinds of ways.

[00:27:09] The census bureau has been doing this for a long time. Geographers demographers have been doing this for a long time with regard to wildlife. I think it’s much better for most people, unless you have to do some kind of statistical analysis. It’s much better for most people to think of urban environments as a continuum downtown in the.

[00:27:27] You have a lot of people, most of the structures are built. You have relatively few green spaces. And so that’s a very particular kind of habitat, a very particular kind of environment. As you move out a little bit more, you get into areas that tend to have more trees, more parks more opportunities for shelter and in some cases, water and certainly food for many creatures.

[00:27:50] And so those suburbs, which for a long time, a lot of folks have seen as pretty ecologically bleak are now turning out to be almost like a crossroads where some native species and some exotic species, some that do well in rural areas. And some that do well in the urban core, come together and mingle in those suburban areas.

[00:28:10] And then as you get further out, you get into more rural spaces. It should not be assumed that rural spaces are any more conducive to all wildlife species. Then suburban areas are around the city of Chicago. For example, coyotes do very well in both in the downtown core, in some cases, but also in suburban leafy areas.

[00:28:31] with a lot of parks, they tend to do less well in intensive agricultural landscapes.

[00:28:37] Like you see throughout much of Northern Illinois because those areas have fewer places to hide. And oftentimes the economics, the industry and people who are living in those places are less tolerant of being willing to have those animals on their properties and in their communities.

[00:28:53] And so this brings up a lot of questions, not just about how animals use habitat, but how people are willing to accept or tolerate them as they attempt to do so as they move into new areas,

[00:29:04] Michael: Okay. That’s really, it’s interesting to think about from that macro point of view and the fact that just because you’re outside of the city doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a better habitat. If you have an intensively managed monoculture or patchwork of monocultures, as often as the. With agriculture, where certain animal species are actually putting your livelihood at risk and, coming to terms with that and how to find the balance there is, the equation is very different than say in the suburbs.

[00:29:34] Peter: think that’s exactly right. I mean, There’s a reason that grizzly bears tend to live in areas that are far away from most people, protected areas, although more and more of them are occurring on some of the urban fringes in the Northern Rockies and in Canada and places like that, certainly in Europe. But raccoon for raccoons habitat opportunities are much better in those urban. Then they are in the high country, in the national parks in many cases. And so it really does vary by species. It changes over time and in urban areas, it’s worth mentioning that some of these opportunities are contingent and temporary.

[00:30:11] You know, We saw it at the beginning of the pandemic now almost exactly two years ago that, there was this flush of wildlife in many cities that people noticed, some of it turned out not really be true, but some of it did. you know, that kind of shows the degree to which urban change, and that was a very abrupt set of changes and temporary ones. But there are also changes that happen over the course, not of days, but of months and years, it can be equally important. Can kind of make some of the success that some of these species have experienced in urban areas seem pretty contingent and pretty temporary.

[00:30:46] Once something that can happen to creatures in urban areas is that for those that reach relatively high population debts and seem to be very successful as you achieve those high population densities, you can become more vulnerable to epidemic diseases. So this has happened for example with foxes in some urban areas that have reached population densities and then a very high population densities, and then been exposed to canine, distemper, or other diseases that then knock out a significant portion of the population.

[00:31:17] And so urban areas are rapidly changing habitats. The arrangements seem to be relatively contingent and it’s kind of space where anything can happen.

[00:31:27] Michael: So you’re a environmental historian and I feel like I’m not really giving the history aspect it’s due so far in this discussion. And in thinking about that, I recall another really interesting observation you had in the book about the impact of the movie Bambi on. Sort of the psyche of the public with respect to wildlife.

[00:31:48] Can you tell me a bit about what you found in looking at.

[00:31:53] Peter: There’s so much there. It’s amazing. I think one thing to remember just right off the bat is that We have an entire industry now, an entire genre and industry of animal feed movies, and television shows and video games and all this stuff. And th those things really in many ways build right on top of a foundation that was created very early on with Bambi and a few other movies. Bambi itself came out in 1942. It was the biggest movie by far that was released that year by the 1960s that have made something like 10 times the box office proceeds of the second biggest movie released that year, which was Casa Blanca. And it was like a fantastic and fantastically interesting movie because it’s really filled with a lot of profound ideas and politics.

[00:32:43] And so by 1942 white tail deer, which is the species that Bambi is based on had gone through a cycle where something like 30 million deer had existed prior to European colonization in the United States, Whitetail deer and their population had been just absolutely hammered down to something like 300,000.

[00:33:03] By the early 20th century, by 1942, their numbers were probably already on the rise again, in some areas due to hunting regulations and some reintroductions in some cases that they were still considered, what we would today call threatened species in many areas. So Bambi comes along and it’s this movie that says people are bad.

[00:33:24] Hunting is bad, forest fires are bad. And really what wild animals need to do if they need to survive is to quote the most famous line in the movie, go deep into the forest. The ironic thing about this, and there’s so much more to the movie, just in terms of the animation and the characters that the fantastic and ironic thing about this is that within a generation, the entire cast of band, rabbits, deer Scott, owls, these are the creatures that start showing up in urban areas in unprecedented numbers.

[00:33:57] And so if the moral of Ambien cart other than things like, nuclear families are natural. Male led nuclear families are natural, right? That was one of the morals of the story. But if one of the morals is that animals can only survive in the forest because people are dangerous. That thesis was completely disproven by the 1970s or 1980s with the same exact creatures that were portrayed in Bambi being the ones that were some of the first, the Vanguard of Woodland critters that became urban wildlife in the 1970s, eighties, and nineties.

[00:34:28] And so it just occupies this kind of a pivotal moment and this pivotal place in thinking about the relationship between popular culture and wildlife in the United.

[00:34:40] Michael: So maybe we can talk a little bit about some of the case studies throughout the book. You look at different cities in different situations where wildlife has returned in one form or another everything from the bats in Austin to bears or mountain lions or even sea life. So in researching all these different scenarios, , what were some of the most surprising discoveries that.

[00:35:03] Peter: I think that the most surprising discovery is the biggest picture. One in a way, and the way that the one that’s in some ways, the most obvious from the book is that urban ecosystems really. Rich communities, rich multi-species communities. They weren’t always like that. They may not always be like that, but they’re like that now.

[00:35:24] And increasingly so, and this has happened not as a result of something people tried to do, for most of American history, people were not trying to fill cities with wildlife, and they’re not trying to do that now, really, this happened almost by accident. And so we’re in this place where we have this rich, urban ecosystems with all these different species that we haven’t had before.

[00:35:47] And so we’re now trying to live with them. We’re trying to figure out how to live with them. And so this state of affairs may seem like something that’s increasingly obvious to folks who study this and you think about it and you read about it, but this was not something anybody would have predicted going back 50 or 60 or 70 years, going back to the time of Bambi.

[00:36:05] And the 1940s. And so it’s really surprising to be in this position where these human dominated, urban ecosystems can support so much nonhuman life. I think that’s the big surprise to me on another level though, the reason I focused on the species that I did was in general, I tried to pick creatures that either people just naturally assumed belonged in urban environments like Eastern gray squirrels, but hadn’t always been there.

[00:36:34] So there’s a surprising story there or creatures that.

[00:36:38] no one would have predicted decades ago would do. Okay. In urban environments and yet are There now. And so that includes creatures like bald Eagles in some cases like black bears, certainly in some cases and also Marine mammals like California, sea lions, which much like white tail deer saw their populations absolutely collapsed by the early 20th sense.

[00:37:01] And then we’re brought back and now do well in and around in many American cities.

[00:37:06] Michael: There are entire demographics of people who could never even imagined the time when , white tailed deer were threatened.

[00:37:14] mentioned a few different times that in fact, it’s in the subtitle of your book, it’s an accidental ecosystem and there’s no guarantee it’s going to continue on this path. If you had to prognosticate, where do you see urban ecosystems, urban wildlife going over the next handful of decades.

[00:37:32] Peter: If you look at what people say out there in the world today, if you look at what they talk about, when they talk about urban wildlife and urban EcoSys, There are generally two broad schools of thought. There are a lot of people who fall in different places with regard to these, but there are two broad schools and I call them in the book, the skeptics and the cheerleaders.

[00:37:51] And so the skeptics are folks who say urban ecosystems are they’re monotonous, the homogenous, the world. They benefit a few creatures at the expense of many and the ones they do benefit often rise to the level in terms of their population densities That they become past. And so we need to eradicate or control the cheerleaders on the other side, say, wait a minute, these are rich diverse ecosystems that tell us so much that we never knew before about ecology and evolution.

[00:38:21] And that really contributes so much to our lives that we need to cherish them and embrace them and cultivate them right as novel ecosystems in the Anthropocene. So these are the two kind of broad schools, or at least two different poles of thought. You know, For me in this book, I tried to wrestle with, but also to take inspiration from both of these where I come down on this is that wildlife in cities can sometimes be hard to live with.

[00:38:48] Right? Sometimes creatures do things that upset us. If you have a gopher in your garden, that can be upsetting, If you have a raccoon rummaging through your trash, that can be upsetting. But overall, although we tend to see with our eyes, the things that are a problem, the things that are upsetting, the creatures, doing things that we would identify with pests, what we often don’t see with our eyes, but we need to understand with our minds and with our hearts is that these creatures, the rest of the time are in many cases doing things that benefit us, that.

[00:39:23] Walking along the edge of a park that you’re wondering if it’s going to be a problem that makes you feel a little anxious or concerned that coyote is probably hunting for rats and rabbits and other small mammals that have reached levels where they become problems in the urban environment.

[00:39:39] And so these coyotes are providing us with a different sort of ecological service there. In some cases, coyotes may actually increase bird diversity in certain areas. This goes back to studies in the 1980s that have been the subject of a lot of debate ever since, but these are services that these animals provide us.

[00:39:57] They brighten our lives. They provide surprising moments of inspiration. They raise new questions and they do things for us, many of which we never see and none of which we actually pay for. And so even though living with them can be a little bit. For me, I think we need to value them for the things that they provide.

[00:40:20] And so what I say in the book, the pitch that I make in the book is to move from a phase of the accidental ecosystem, where these creatures came back to urban areas, for reasons that, we decisions we made for other reasons a long time ago it was just happened in many cases. But now we should move into a more intentional phase from an accidental phase to an intentional phase.

[00:40:44] And the more intentional phase would be to think about both on an individual level and on a community level, how our actions contribute to the ecosystems in which we live. And how the ways in which we contribute to the ecosystems in which we live, shape the populations of animals that we share those spaces with.

[00:41:04] And so that is a more like I said, a more intentional approach and it enables us to really think about the kinds of habitats that we want to share and the kinds of creatures that we want to live with in the future.

[00:41:15] And just talking about it with people in your community too, and realizing that everything, this is a weird way of thinking, Michael, but everything that we do , in our community, In some ways like wildlife management, you know, if you, if you own a home or if you live in a partner where you have some say in how things are being maintained, or even if you just have a car, if you’re speeding down the road and not paying attention to things, you’re doing wildlife management, you’re just not thinking about it in that way.

[00:41:40] You’re increasing risks of taking animals out of the population, increasing risks to yourself and your property. If you’re planting shrubs outside your house or outside of your apartment the shrubs that you plan are either going to attract or deter different species of wildlife, including birds and others.

[00:41:58] And so we do all of these things without really thinking about how they impact and interact with all of these other creatures in their communities. And if we started talking about that and thinking about that a little bit more, we’d probably all be a lot better.

[00:42:12] Michael: I really like to think about some of the things I’ve been fortunate enough to observe on the small scale in my backyard. And I haven’t used pesticides in a few years. And, we grow some ornamental plants and some vegetables and other things like that. And I would notice occasionally small outbreaks of aphids.

[00:42:33] And I think a lot of gardeners when they see aphids, it’s let’s go get the pesticide right now. And by watching what happened, what transpired, I found that parasitoid wasps would come in or lacewings or lady beetles or other really interesting, again, small-scale wildlife would come and provide those services you were talking about and problem solved.

[00:42:56] There was balance. And there’s more, I all those insects are bird food, so there’s more support for other animals as well. And it just thinking about how is an analogy for what you’re talking about here on a larger scale.

[00:43:08] Peter: Yeah. I th I think that in many cases, doing a little bit of intentional management of the habitats where we live can go a long way in terms of creating the kinds of spaces where we want to be. And so not thinking about it after the fact and spraying pesticides, but maybe thinking about it before the fact and planting beneficial plants that provide habitat for the predators that can go after your insect pests, when those arrive.

[00:43:37] Michael: And I think you were anticipating my question and I was going to ask you what policy makers should think about when it comes to some of the give and take that exists in urban environments. So you started to touch on that, but do you have any other suggestions for say people who would like maybe they’re on a city council or would like to influence their city council?

[00:43:58] But sure. It’s a policy. Should we be pursuing?

[00:44:00] Peter: There are so many opportunities here and many of them might seem small, but together they add up and we can look around the country and see a lot of great things that a lot of communities are doing right now. So education is a Great place to start funding education programs through local institutions like museums or zoos or Botanic gardens that, make people aware, not just of beautiful, spectacular creatures that live, in Africa or Asia, but about the environments and the communities that we live in here.

[00:44:29] But another thing is simply preserving open space and green space in a way that people can access. It’s a really tricky thing because the more green space you preserve that tends to drive. The cost of living in places because those places become more desirable. And so there are many communities out there.

[00:44:46] I think that have mixed feelings about bringing in more, more green space and planting more trees. If that means something like rising housing costs, but in places where that can be balanced and where it’s led by community engagement, community input and where there are other sorts of supporting policies there.

[00:45:03] I think that those are really important things, going back to the 18th century in the United States insurance companies would actually not provide insurance to homeowners and property owners whose buildings had trees next. Because insurance companies thought that trees were fire hazards.

[00:45:21] And so it took a variety of different actions, including the creation of new insurance companies that would do that kind of support to enable people, to plant trees, to make our cities, leafier and greener, and to provide the benefits that trees offer while also enabling people to be able to buy affordable insurance.

[00:45:40] I think that there are other things too, such as incentives to remove a turf lawns, right lawns off often don’t provide a lot of benefit. They’re great in parks where people can use them to play ball and do things like that. But they’re not quite as useful in front yards when we could have other kinds of landscaping that can provide wildlife discouraging, the use.

[00:46:00] Pesticides including, especially rodenticides blood thinners that are used to kill rodents and communities are really nasty compounds that then find their way up the food chain into animals like Bobcats and coyotes that many of us love and want to see around. And certainly don’t want to see die from suffering the kinds of elements that can result from ingesting blood thinners, like including mange is one of the possible consequences to that.

[00:46:26] So these are all just examples of the kinds of things you can do. And there are many more, and there are some great resources out there for people on the web now, too, to think about how to green their landscaping, how to participate in community, clean up and restoration efforts how to, just get involved with educational programs and contribute to organizations that are doing this kind of thing.

[00:46:47] And to do it in a way that combines the pressing. For programs that address environmental inequities and environmental injustices in communities with programs that try to create cleaner and greener more wildlife-friendly habitats.

[00:47:02] Michael: Great ideas, foundational ideas.

[00:47:05] Peter: I think you’re right in a broad and deep sense in terms of deep time, I think there’s a few issues that are a bit more proximate though. So one is the fact that in the 1930s there was this effort to really, reregulate a lot of industries during the depression and establish more workplace safety rules and things like that.

[00:47:27] And at that time, what was a very distributed disorganized pest industry in the United States came together and started lobbying in a very effective way. And what they were able to do is they were able to basically prevent much regular. Certainly at the federal level, but also in the states. And the result was that pest control, particularly in urban areas largely remained a private service industry for individual people who were being inconvenienced by animals.

[00:47:55] And so the consequence of that is that in rural areas, we manage wildlife under the public trust as a public good, in theory, based on scientific conservation principles and an urban areas, largely we manage wildlife as a private for-profit service industry, providing a service for individual people and feeling convenience.

[00:48:18] And I felt inconvenienced before. I know what that’s like, nobody likes it, but at the same time, it seems to me that if we want to move from an accidental to an intentional phase in the history of urban wilds, One thing we can do is not put pest control operators out of business, but to regulate them in a way that actually points toward goals, not just relieving inconvenience, but thinking about what we want, how to animals in cities and having pest control point toward those common goals, those public goals. So, public trust, ecologically based goals, as opposed to it merely being a service industry for individual people on their properties.

[00:49:04] Michael: Could you tell me thinking back what’s one top of head event, maybe it was a wildlife encounter or a book you stumbled across, or somebody you met that stands out as escalating your interest in the care for the natural.

[00:49:17] Peter: So I tell several stories in the book that I think get at this, but there’s one that I thought I might tell you very quickly now that I think approaches it in a little bit different. And connects my own journey to the journey of the book. Years ago, I had an opportunity to go on an amazing trip in Alaska and get to the Arctic national park where started up in the Brooks range on the on the crest of the Brooks range and then backpacked down to the gates of the Arctic themselves.

[00:49:44] And then did a rafting trip out from there. And I remember the second or third day on the rafting trip it was the kind of thing where, it was light almost 24 hours and we found that the weather was best late in the evening. And so we’d get on the river at 10 or 11 o’clock in the evening and float until, one o’clock or something like that.

[00:50:04] Um, These long sunsets evenings Twilight, we came around the corner on the river. And I remember looking ahead and there was a mother wolf. Um, with two pops right there on the side of the river. And that was the first time I’d seen a Wolf in the wild, I don’t study wolves. They’re not part of my professional circle in a way.

[00:50:24] But that was the first time I had seen one in the wild and it was in an incredibly wild place. These were in animals. They may never have seen people before And they acted like it. As soon as they saw that big red, rubber raft come around the corner they pretty much, took off. And so this was my image of what it was to be a Wolf a few years later when I started thinking about grizzly bears in California.

[00:50:45] And when I started thinking about urban wildlife too, I learned that in Europe wolves had been returning to many areas from which they were extirpated decades or centuries ago, including some of the most densely populated areas. On the outskirts of cities like Rome and Berlin, and even all the way north and west up to the fringes of very densely populated countries like Belgium and even the Netherlands, believe it or not.

[00:51:11] And this was causing quite a ruckus there. People were had a lot of different, very strong feelings about it, but it gave me pause because it was one of these moments where I realized that the image that I’d had of this species was only a partial window into what it actually was, what it could do and what its potential was.

[00:51:31] And maybe what our potential was to live with it. Maybe we’ll student have to just be a hundred miles from the nearest settlement in the Brooks range in Alaska. Maybe if we could learn to live with wolves and places like the Netherlands or Germany. And we had a much better shot at living with endangered species and biodiversity and wildlife in general, in a lot of other parts of that.

[00:51:54] Michael: And of course right now wolves are, wolves are always a hot topic, as you said, that they’re definitely a lightening rod, but the situation near Yellowstone in Montana is in the news lately. So it’s a definitely a very relevant story.

[00:52:07] Peter: It certainly is. And that’s a story that’s coming to much of the rest of the American west, for sure.

[00:52:12] Michael: And this may seem like a tangent. Did you read John McPhee’s book coming into the country

[00:52:19] Peter: I did. Yes. Years ago.

[00:52:21] Michael: when you talk about rafting and the Brooks range, that’s what came to mind. And so I have, even though I’ve never been there, I have these strong visuals of what it was like and what you saw.

[00:52:29] Peter: Yep. I think I actually read it before that trip, so that was a while back, but it was yeah, but I do remember that I have it on my shelf.

[00:52:36] Michael: Yep. It’s a great book and I’ll include a link in the show notes, of course, as I will, to everything else that we’ve talked about. And in speaking of have links in the show notes and pointers to other things coming up. What other projects are you working on? What else would you like to highlight?

[00:52:51] When’s your book coming out?

[00:52:52] Peter: Yeah. So the book is due out next month in April, mid April, and you can purchase it pretty much anywhere where you purchase books, you can buy it through the university of California, press and buy it on Amazon, or just about anywhere else or at your local bookstore, which is a great way to do it. So you can go ahead and do that.

[00:53:07] In addition, I one of my passion projects that I’ve been working on for several years now, and that’ll be continuing to work on for the next several years is that in 2016, I was, I became the founder and facilitator of a research collaborative group based here at UCSB, but with a lot of connections to other groups and collaborations with other groups around the country.

[00:53:27] And. That’s taking the first serious look at the past and potential future of grizzly bears in California, really since the 1950s with a couple of little exceptions over the years. And so our goal is to take a fresh look at this story to better understand the Grizzlies history in California, how it lived, where it came from where it lived, why it declined, why it disappeared from California and whether or not we could ever bring it back.

[00:53:55] It’s been almost a hundred years since Grizzlies are considered extinct in California. The last credible sighting of a grizzly in California was in 1924. And they were presumed extinct by 1925. So the hundredth anniversary is coming up, but in some ways in part, because of the success of other conservation efforts in the state now might be a good time to rethink that story and to think about whether a place with a grizzly on its state flag and as the mascot of its sports team.

[00:54:22] And pretty much everywhere. Ubiquitous at a symbol around the state could also be the kind of place that can host a small population of these bears that have lived here for a very long time. That probably arrived here. I’m seeing time. As people shared this place with humans for many thousands of years and potentially could return as they have in some parts of Europe where brown bears are quite common and living in close proximity to many.

[00:54:48] Michael: That’s a super fascinating topic. And I’m thinking back, I, if I’m not mistaken, the grizzly bear back say like in the Lewis and Clark era in, when they were exploring the Western half of the United States, Western two-thirds of the United States I think they were encountering grizzly bears in.

[00:55:05] South Dakota, maybe even Iowa and Nebraska. I CA it, it used to be used to have a range. It was much, much bigger than it is today.

[00:55:13] Peter: The grizzly bears range, a known range expanded about halfway across the continental United States. They seem to not have made it all the way into the hardwood forest of the east, at least in ancient history. But it looks like in the west on the great Plains, they were probably able to follow riparian corridors and make it pretty far into the great Plains expand pretty widely across the American west to the point in which they existed in every state, the estimated population.

[00:55:39] At Grizzlies. And what’s now the lower 48 us states in about 1800. It’s about 50,000 bears, probably about a fifth of which lived in California.

[00:55:47] Michael: Wow. Yeah. California has done so well in so many areas that’s a really an interesting process. So if people want to follow your progress in that regard, or really any other regard, where can they go

[00:56:00] Peter: Sure. You’re welcome to come and check out my website. It’s just Peter algona.com, super easy. And in addition, if you want to learn more about the California briefly researched network and our work there, you can just go

[00:56:11] to Cal grizzly.com. There’s a bunch of links. We’re adding more to it all the time, but a bunch of projects in the works.

[00:56:17] I’m working on a book about that one as well. And you can follow our progress there and feel free to reach out and ask any questions you may have and happy to talk with anybody about bears. They’re pretty much in time.

[00:56:27] Michael: fun? So thank you so much for imparting all this wisdom today, all this history and and looking forward to. So Pete, Dr. Elena, thank you again. I appreciate all the time you spent today.

[00:56:39] Peter: Thank you so much, Michael, it’s been a plus.

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