Outside of designated natural areas, the Los Angeles River by and large is one of the few places in Los Angeles that does not have constant human activity. “It’s one area that’s mostly not developed with houses,” says Justin Brown, a Thousand Oaks-based researcher with the National Park Service (NPS). So the river may be a prime spot for attracting animals, both as a home environment and as a way to move between various habitats. The problem is, the waterway’s role as an ecosystem is not well understood.
Now researchers with the NPS are installing a series of nearly 40 wildlife cameras across 30 miles of the river’s course to try and get answers on how foxes, bobcats, opossums, coyotes, skunks, raccoons and other mammals are using this area. Already, cameras have captured a coyote rolling on the ground and appearing to dance on its hind legs near Silver Lake and a bobcat walking up a hill near Coldwater Canyon, its spotted tawny fur resplendent in the sun.
Because of the large number of photos that will be generated, the public will be invited later in the year to help tag photos by going on a citizen science website (zooniverse.org), where they will have the ability to note the animal seen and anything else happening onscreen — such as how many individuals are present and if an animal is carrying prey. “That way we can process the data much more quickly,” says Brown, the lead ecologist on the project.
"We are monitoring areas that are not what anybody would consider habitat. But it will give a sense of which species are able to use which areas and what kind of urban gradient they are able to live in."
While the park service has been studying the movements of mountain lions for years in the Santa Monica Mountains, there’s very little data on the movements of other mammals in more urban locations. “With these cameras, we’ll be able to monitor more areas and get an idea where animals are,” says Brown.
Since January, around 30 of the cameras have been installed, from relatively wild areas in Griffith Park to “little strips of property right outside of Downtown L.A. that could be as small as 10 by 20 feet. Some spots could be mowed grass plots. We are monitoring areas that are not what anybody would consider habitat. But it will give a sense of which species are able to use which areas and what kind of urban gradient they are able to live in,” says Brown. The program will hopefully also give a sense of whether the L.A. River is acting as a wildlife corridor between the more than 150,000-acre Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (spanning Los Angeles and Ventura counties) and spaces in the city. Such work also could go a long way in improving public appreciation of the river, at a time when major plans are underway along its course for both redevelopment and ecological restoration. “This is really focusing on trying to get data on some of these urban areas to help city planners make decisions,” says Brown.
Wildlife is attracted to the cameras by olfactory lures that are placed in front of the equipment. “They smell like death. Actually, they smell more like rotten cheese. It’s a very pungent odor,” says Brown of the bait, which is a product made by the USDA called a fatty-acid scent tablet. “Most animals are curious about scent,” he adds.
The cameras will be active four separate months out of the year, generating a total of around 5,000 pictures from each round that will need to be tagged and analyzed.
There are three mammal species that Brown would be surprised to see: Bassariscus astutus, commonly known as ringtail, a small relative of the raccoon; Taxidea taxus, badgers; and Spilogale gracilias, the Western spotted skunk. While all live in the Santa Monica Mountains, they are unlikely to be found near the Los Angeles River. “I don’t expect to see these species in developed areas,” says Brown. On the other hand, the study — which will last for a minimum of two years — is expected to pick up the presence of feral domestic cats, a major predator of bird populations. “We should get a sense of how many cats are living in these areas.”
Two philanthropic sources of support, the Santa Monica Mountains Fund and the Lush Cosmetics Foundation, are fully funding the program, while volunteers and staff from nine local groups — Citizens for Los Angeles Wildlife (CLAW), Friends of Griffith Park, Friends of the Los Angeles River, Heal the Bay, the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, the Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, and the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club — are helping install and monitor the cameras. The program is part of the Urban Wildlife Information Network, a nationwide project run by Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. It will draw data and comparisons from a total of eight participating cities, so far, including Denver, Austin, Indianapolis, and Madison, Wisconsin.
As for that coyote spotted in Silver Lake? The dance moves have been documented as a mysterious discovery in an overlooked pocket of nature. “I still don’t know what that coyote was doing in front of that camera,” says Brown. “The lure is on the ground so the animal should have been sniffing on the ground. I have no idea why it was doing that.”
Top image: Map of zones along L.A. River where wildlife cameras are being installed. | National Park Service