News coverage of what’s known as the “urban-wildlife” interface–that area beyond the inner suburbs but before wilderness, in which people build homes in an untamed landscape–tends to focus on the growing risk from wildfires. And with good reason. High heat and prolonged drought have greatly increased the odds that homes in the urban-wildlife interface, especially in the western U.S., will be be torched by wildfires that each year are consuming areas larger in aggregate than several eastern states.
Less publicized, however, has been the growing interface conflict between humans and wild animals–the former sometimes exploiting the latter for cynical purposes. I don’t mean the occasional headline-grabber, like the recent mountain lion attack in California on a hiker and her dog. I mean the wholesale invocation of a threatened species to justify a political decision, usually over something to do with housing, and usually resulting in still more pressure on public lands–whether on city streets or in national forests–as people scramble for shelter. The upshot, ironically, is that both people and wildlife end up the losers.
Exhibit A is a recent but long overdue decision by Vail Resorts to build housing for 165 of its ski-resort employees in Colorado, where the company’s success in attracting a high-dollar clientele has in turn driven housing costs in the area so high that its employees can’t afford to live where they work. Many, indeed, end up boondocking in vans and tents in surrounding national forests, in a scene reminiscent of medieval peasants sleeping in a castle’s stables and animal pens. But Vail town officials, who you might think would be supportive of such a plan, are in fact actively fighting against it.
Claiming that the land Vail Resorts wants to use for its proposed low-cost apartments is a wintering site for bighorn sheep, the town this month voted to start condemnation proceedings for the property–even though it had previously approved the project. And even though–and one might suppose this is the real problem–a number of luxury homes already occupy the sheep habitat that is causing so much concern, some developed fairly recently.
That same pattern–of claiming to protect wildlife to keep low and middle-income housing out of upper-income enclaves–is on even more nauseating display in Woodside, California, where the listed median home price is $5.7 million. California has, in fact, the highest real estate prices in the country, sustained to a large extent by restrictive zoning laws that make it impossible for sufficient low- and moderate-priced housing to be constructed, giving the state the dubious distinction of also having the largest number of homeless people living on its streets.
Seeking to address the housing shortage, the state enacted a law that took effect Jan. 1 making it easier for homeowners to split their lots, convert their homes to duplexes or build second units on their property. Posh towns and cities reacted by scrambling to find ways to block an imagined invasion of thousands of new, scruffier citizens, such as Pasadena’s decision to declare swaths of the city as “landmark districts” and therefore beyond the new law’s reach. But Woodside, apparently not in a position to do likewise, took the dance to a brand new level: it claimed that the entire town is a mountain lion sanctuary.
Or as observed by Joe Garofoli, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle: “You know, because mountain lions like to live large in the burbs. Or something like that.”
Woodside got slapped down by the state’s attorney general, Rob Bonita, and rightly so, while the ongoing conflict over bighorn sheep in Colorado–whose numbers are declining, in part because of inadequate wintering grounds–is more nuanced. But both cases illustrate a growing tendency toward using wildlife as a bargaining chip by monied interests, almost invariably to the detriment of working class people and the animals themselves, and it’s not a stretch to predict that more such examples are coming.
Because, you know, people with money like to live large in places that are home to wildlife, without really thinking about what that means for the wildlife itself. Or anyone else.