October 12, 2016

If you build it, what will come?

Photo Caption:  Rare sage thrasher visits the Fife Preserve.
Photo Caption:  Rare sage thrasher visits the Fife Preserve.||| Photo Caption: Rare sage thrasher visits the Fife Preserve.||| |||
By The West View

by Dan Potts

The first wildlife article I wrote for The West View was titled: “If You Build It, They Will Come.” That editorial, published in the Summer 2012 Issue, promoted the creation of wildlife habitat.

I, along with many other nature proponents in Salt Lake City were disappointed that the city had developed 140 acres on the north Jordan River for the construction of the controversial Regional Sports Complex, rather than the wildlife preserve and nature center that were originally proposed. This was at a time when other cities along the Jordan River were moving ahead with their own large nature restoration projects.

Since then, mitigation funding for the Chevron oil spill into Red Butte Creek has provided several opportunities for Utah’s capital city to restore wildlife habitat. One of those projects here on the west side is a small 7.5 acre parcel on the Jordan River at 900 South. Following my recommendation, this wetland preserve was recently named after longtime west side residents Fred and Ila Rose Fife.

The earth-moving portion of that project is now complete, resulting in a large, shallow pond, and the area has been re-planted with numerous native plants.

The most common questions I hear about the Fife Wetlands Preserve are: “Has the project resulted in more wildlife?” and “Now that we built it, what new wildlife will come?”

To answer these questions it is important to define what wildlife is not. It does not take an expert to understand that most people do not consider house mice, Norway rats, raccoons, English house sparrows, European starlings, Eurasian collared doves, or any other common, non-native, urban non-migratory species to be wildlife. Rather they are often considered to be pests.

What many do not understand, however, is that even some of our native wildlife species can no longer be considered wild. Classic examples include mallard ducks and Canadian geese, many of which no longer migrate, live year round here in Salt Lake City’s ice free waterways, and are routinely fed by people. They have so adapted to our urban lifestyle that they have lost many of their protective instincts, becoming almost domesticated. Experts refer to this type of behavior as "habituation." A great example of habituation here in our west side neighborhoods is the recent influx of rock squirrels that are quickly becoming pests, especially for neighbors with fruit trees.

The non-habituated wildlife species featured in my previous columns include amphibians, fish, reptiles, mammals, and migratory birds. From the beginning, the Fife Preserve has been home for several wildlife species including tiger salamanders, fathead minnows, and wandering garter snakes. More recently we have seen new arrivals including snowy egrets, common mergansers, muskrats, red-winged blackbirds, and even a rare sage thrasher (see photo).

In the future, the preserve should expect to attract new fish like speckled dace, chorus frogs, valley garter snakes, mammals like long-legged bats and meadow voles, and of course a large and growing list of migratory, neotropical birds like black-crowned night-herons, cinnamon teal, American kestrels, purple martins, marsh wrens, yellow-breasted chats, and spotted towhees, just to name a few. Many of these animals are unique, beautiful, and really fun to watch.

I find that there are three things that most citizens do not understand about wildlife restoration.

First, good wildlife habitats are naturally messy and diverse, and should NOT be managed as “people parks” with their traditional Kentucky bluegrass and shade trees. Some people think that wildlife prefer the tidy, orderliness of the city's parks. Those parks, however, are designed and managed for people, not wildlife. Artificial watering and mowing at restoration sites should not be continued indefinitely, because there are no sprinklers or lawn mowers in the wild.

Second, people do not realize that restoration projects like the Fife Wetlands Preserve often take decades to reach their full wildlife potential. Therefore, the public needs to be patient.

Third, to realize the best results from our restoration efforts requires the use of “best practices,” such as the complete exclusion of both dogs and bicycles. This is essential to minimize disruption to wildlife in such a small preserve. People walking dogs or riding bikes have many other more appropriate, designated areas to use.

Over the years, I have showcased many truly wild species in my column, and appreciate the many compliments received for my efforts. It will take many years to feature all of the “true” wildlife here along the Jordan River in The West View, but if "We build it; they will come!"