This summer, the residential streets of Reno and Sparks are where the wild things are.
A bear strolled around a Northwest Reno neighborhood near Robb Drive and the Interstate-80 interchange July 28, frolicking across front yards and driveways. In June, another bruin came to a bad end in the Galena neighborhood when a resident allegedly shot the animal, an incident that remains under investigation. Throughout the Truckee Meadows, residents are reporting what some believe are increased sightings of bears, bobcats, coyotes, skunks and other critters.
“I saw a bobcat in my front yard in broad daylight,” said Barbara Samuels, who lives on Howard Drive in Sparks. “He was just sitting there, looking around calmly like a housecat… We’re not near a stream or a greenway or anything. I didn’t think (bobcats) would be living in the city, (with) no woods or anything near us.”
Samuels wondered if the quarantine in March and April created an opportunity for the animals to cruise the empty streets more often. That’s a common theory. In May, CNN posted a gallery of wildlife around the world taking advantage of the absence of humans. The BBC published photos of wild boars cruising residential neighborhoods in Israel and a mountain lion making itself at home within an apartment complex in Chile. But Nevada experts said the recent local sightings aren’t too out of the ordinary and can’t be tied to the pandemic.
“A lot of it is people noticing them more,” said Jessica Wolff, urban wildlife coordinator at the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “In summer, the animals are more active, having babies, all of that good stuff. Our urban areas really invite the animals because we have such good habitat for them. We have a lot of trash and that attracts rodents, which in turn attracts predators such as coyotes and bobcats.”
Our green spaces provide habitat for rabbits, mice and squirrels, and they are prey for the carnivores. In addition, “we create a lot of the attractants for those animals,” Wolff said. “They are very good at using human sources of food in order to survive.”
She said people have been at home more often during the pandemic and so are more aware of the wild visitors. In addition, dry spring and summer conditions have diminished forage in the higher elevations. That means bears may have to travel in search of take-out dinners. “With the dry conditions there isn’t a lot of food for bears in the higher elevations and we’re getting close to (their hibernation period),” Wolff said. “They need to find up to 25,000 calories every single day. It’s their job right now to get as fat as they possibly can.”
Some residents, like Samuels, are surprised when they encounter wildlife near busy streets and far from the edges of the mountains or desert. Jackie Green of Reno said that last month her dog woke her at about 4 a.m. and she let her pet out in the yard for a bathroom break. “Then, my neighbor’s motion detector light flipped on,” Green said. “An animal stepped into the light. He turned his head toward me and definitely had the ears of a coyote. He turned and loped back up Wesley toward Lake Park. Not a big story, but I was surprised one was this close to Keystone Avenue.” Rob Madrigal of Reno said he often sees coyotes and an occasional bobcat in the area near the Washoe County Golf Course. “I was surprised to see a coyote in daylight (recently),” he said. “It was so sleek it looked like it had been groomed. It was beautiful.”
Some residents revel in the sights and sounds of the canine visitors: “I love hearing them at night!” Grace M. Potorti of Reno wrote on Facebook. “Coyotes rock!” That comment brought a reply from Dorothy Kosich, who lives in Old Southwest Reno and is used to a legion of wild things in the neighborhood. Coyotes, who sometimes take cats and small dogs as meals, are not her favorite creatures.
“I heard them killing a dog in its yard one night and was afraid my two elderly dogs were next,” Kosich said. “Although they sleep inside, they have a dog door when they have to go potty and both poodles are about the right size for a coyote snack. I keep the lights on my patio burning all night long as a result.”
Over the years, she has seen a raccoon the size of a large dog walking down the middle of Plumb Lane at night and a bear noshing on fruit trees a couple of doors down from her house. She said a skunk is a nightly visitor to her backyard. “The Old Last Chance Ditch used to run along my property line and I guess there is still a trickle of water somewhere,” she said. “An owl is also a resident and something always attracts my dogs’ attention and screams loudly when they approach. I don’t even want to know what it is.”
Wolff said the Department of Wildlife gets frequent calls from residents about creatures on their property, from bears to skunks to mountain lions. Keeping pet cats inside is the best way to protect them, she said, and covered dog runs are insurance against predators. In general, the best way to avoid unwanted wild visitors is to remove temptations.
“Fruit trees are a big temptation,” she said. “Remove fruit as it as soon ripens, or better yet, even before it’s ripe. Bird feeders also are as big attraction. There are 12,000 calories in 5 pounds of flax seeds. These animals are really smart; they follow their noses and once they find easy food they remember and return for more.”
Garbage cans are also convenient restaurants for wildlife. “That half of an uneaten chicken rotting away in the trash smells great to a bear or other animal,” Wolff said. She said homeowners should make sure leftover food is wrapped tightly and they should avoid putting out trash cans the night before the pickup day. “Animals can get used to the schedule and make the rounds,” she said.
She said NDOW’s Bear Hotline, (775) 688-BEAR (688-2327) gets a lot of calls. “They get down to the valley almost every year,” Wolff said. When bears venture into residential areas, they are tranquilized and trapped by the Department of Wildlife. The animals get tagged for future identification, but before they are released into the wild they undergo some aversion therapy. The NDOW workers clap loudly, yell, and use noise-makers and barking dogs to convince the bears that “humans are no fun to be around,” she said.
That’s also what residents should do. “If you see a bear, make yourself as large as possible and make a lot of noise,” she said. It’s also a good idea to scare away coyotes and bobcats because if they become acclimated to humans, that could lead to trouble for both the animals and the people.
Wolff said mountain lion sightings are rare in the city, but they do venture out onto the pavement on occasion. “If you have deer herds, you will have lions,” she said. “Their ranges can extend up to 100 square miles, so if you see one it will be gone in a day or so. The exception is if it has a cache of food in the area. They can’t eat a deer in one sitting. They may return to a carcass over as many as 10 days.”
In general, though, it’s rare to see a puma outside the high country. “They are secretive, solitary animals,” Wolff said. “It’s a pretty unique case when that does happen.”
Still, when summer has faded and the pandemic is someday behind us, will continue to live among a secret jungle of urban wildlife. Red-tail hawks will dive on resting mourning doves or unlucky rabbits. In their turn, the hawks will be mobbed by squadrons of chickadees or crows. Bands of raccoons will still use city storm drains as a subway system with an express route to our yards and trash cans. Coyotes, one of the only species that has expanded its range in the last century, will still wander among our driveways and dart between our parked cars. Shy bobcats will stalk squirrels; skunks will pay nocturnal visits to our gardens.
In this time of the virus and working from home, residents are noticing nature’s cycle a bit more closely.
“A lot more smaller raptors this year,” wrote Don Vetter of Spanish Springs in response to a Reno News & Review Facebook post about this story. “Sharp-shinned and Goshute hawks and the usual red hawks. A very active coyote pack, maybe two. Good year for small songbirds and hummingbirds,” he wrote.
“Maybe they’ve always been running around, but I never paid attention before,” said Amy Suarez of Reno, a computer technician who now works from her home. “I think I’ve seen more unusual birds and (wild) animals in the last six months than I saw in the last 20 years in Reno… I think (seeing them) makes people feel more connected with nature.”