By Megan Dooley
You're not likely to find a bear lurking around Oak Park in the middle of the night. And cougars generally stay away (though one was shot in Chicago in 2008). But certain wild animals do call metropolitan areas home. Raccoons, for instance, and coyotes.
Come spring, Oak Park may be the next site for a study that targets these and other urban carnivores in a long-term attempt to facilitate better relations with their human neighbors.
"These are carnivore species that frequently get into conflict situations with humans," said Dr. Seth Magle, a researcher for the Urban Wildlife Institute of Lincoln Park Zoo, the entity responsible for the animal study, which is already active throughout the Chicago Park District and in forest preserves stretching across four counties: Cook, DuPage, Lake and Will.
"Our primary goal ... is to understand how it is that urban wildlife are surviving and persisting in these urban areas like Chicago, and then trying to develop methods by which we can minimize conflict between humans and wildlife in urban areas," said Magle.
He and his colleagues install motion-sensor cameras in trees throughout non-developed urban areas where animals tend to thrive, including parks, forest preserves, golf courses and cemeteries. The cameras are designed to capture animal behavior patterns.
It's a first step in what will likely be a complex and drawn-out research project. But this first step should answer important preliminary questions about how animals are surviving in an urban landscape, and how they come into conflict with people, Magle said.
"We feel like the first step is to understand: Where are they? What parts of the city are they using? Can we predict which types of neighborhoods or which types of areas are more likely to see these species?" said Magle.
"Our idea is to understand — as you move out the city and the degree of urbanization and the density of people and buildings changes — where can we see changes in these wildlife communities," he said.
Oak Park is a very attractive candidate for the study because of its proximity to Chicago. "[It's] very interesting to us, because that's where you're starting to see the density of development decreasing a little bit," said Magle.
The plan has not yet been approved by the Park District of Oak Park, but Mike Grandy, superintendent of buildings and grounds, said the park board is supportive of the plan. "None of our leadership over here has a problem with the concept," he said. Still, the issue remains up in the air while the village's risk management team makes sure the town would be free of any liability. Grandy said the board is still waiting for that letter before signing off on the project.
If they get the OK, Urban Wildlife Institute researchers would come in and install cameras in a number of locations around town. "Our normal sampling design is, we're trying to capture all four seasons. We usually put cameras out for a month each season," Magle said. And the total study would span five years, minimum. "The thing about these ecological studies is you often need longtime spans of data to really be able to see anything interesting. We think one of the real strengths of our approach is that we're going to have years and years of data by the time we're done," he said.
So far, the researchers are monitoring some 80 cameras they've already set up for the study. If they get approval from all the necessary bodies, the total number involved in the project would be somewhere around 180.
Unfortunately, the instruments are subject to theft and vandalism. "They are locked up, so they're not completely defenseless," said Magle, of the cameras, which he described as boxes roughly 4 inches wide, 4 inches deep, and 8 inches high. "But especially determined people can either steal or break the cameras and that has happened. We do want to try to minimize that, so we try not to publicize the exact location of the cameras," he said.
Which means that if the study does come to Oak Park, we won't likely be told which areas the institute is planning to observe. But if all goes as planned and the park district approves the study, then the animal monitoring could start up quite soon.
"I think our focus with Oak Park is that it would be great if we could get those set out in the spring, so some time probably in April," Magle said.