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Nuisance animals: they’re still your neighbors

A Land Trust event will discuss ways to make peace with deer, racoons, even coyotes.

Russell Link spends a great deal of time letting his property go wild.

On his four acres on Whidbey Island, Link arranges sheets of plywood in his yard, pointedly ignores overgrown fruit trees and dumps piles of brush into his several ponds.

To the uninformed neighbor, it may seem like neglect of good land – until Link explains that salamanders and frogs enjoy the shade provided by submerged brush, songbirds seek refuge from raptors in his untrimmed apple trees and families of garter snakes hibernate under the plywood shelters.

“On my piece of property, I go to extremes to attract wildlife,” Link said.

As the purveyor of a backyard nature sanctuary, a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the author of “Living With Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest”, Link is an expert on how humans and woodland animals can get along in close quarters. Which is why Link was invited to speak at the Bainbridge Island Land Trust’s annual meeting and give advice on building harmonious relations with a few of the island’s common “nuisance” animals.

Link said just a handful of species will be more than enough to fill his half-hour talk, and he will probably focus on deer, gray squirrels, raccoons and coyotes.

“I’ll be talking about resolving conflicts, and more importantly, preventing conflicts,” Link said.

For some animals, like squirrels and raccoons, that can be as simple as not leaving out food sources like garbage, protecting bird feeders and sealing up attics to prevent a home invasion.

When it comes to coyotes, which have made news on Bainbridge recently as suspects in the disappearance of island pets, Link said a little knowledge of the species can help a lot.

Each animal has its own personality and not every one is aggressive or intent on eating of Fido. So unless a specific coyote has been identified as a problem animal, its best to leave them alone.

“If there’s a coyote living in the neighborhood that isn’t causing a problem and you shoot it, another one will take over its territory very quickly and you might not be so lucky with the new one,” Link said.

Link was interested to hear the reports of coyote conflict on Bainbridge and is curious to find out if they had been provoked through human interaction or encroachment on habitat.

“Coyotes have been on Bainbridge Island for decades, people have been living around coyotes for decades,” he said.

“The most important thing is to keep the coyotes wild.”

Giving animals space to be wild in the rapidly developing Northwest has been Link’s focus since he began working on the Backyard Sanctuary Program, which certifies the habitat-building efforts of homeowners.

His experience in the program led to his first book “Landscaping for Wildlife” published in 1999. “Living with Wildlife” followed in 2004.

Link served as an urban biologist for the department and has recently shifted to more general wildlife survey work in King County. Even with animals to deal with at work and a yard full of fauna at home, Link said he had trouble empathizing with people who complained of nuisance wildlife. That was before an otter invaded his private space.

“A river otter got under my house one year and gave birth to three river otter pups,” he said. “I like wildlife, but I don’t let it in the house and I don’t let it under the house.”

The otter made a general pest of itself, creating a stench and even biting Link’s dog. Link waited until the otter was away fishing one day and crawled under the house after the pups, worried all the while that the irate mother would come hissing in from behind.

“My wife was screaming ‘we need a professional, we need a professional,’” he said. “And here I am, the guy who wrote the book on it.”

Link succeeded in extracting the pups and carefully placed them in a bowl on top of a heated pad by the house. The mother dutifully took the pups away during the night but the incident had tested even Link’s patience.

“I’m a compassionate person,” he said. “But it wasn’t until I dealt with the river otter and her pups that I really had compassion for people who say they are at their wit’s end with animal conflicts.”

Link said the otter incident marked his only serious altercation with an animal, a success he would credit to a philosophy of providing a home for wildlife while leaving it enough space to avoid direct interaction with humans.

Link admits that his “extreme” backyard preservation efforts may have neighbors thinking he’s a little eccentric.

Just recently he noticed that a 20-foot tall cedar tree on his land wasn’t growing well and decided to make it into a habitat “snag” by cutting its top off. But after topping the tree he wasn’t satisfied with his handiwork. It looked too artificial. So he lit it on fire.

“I had a small bon fire going on the top for a lot of the day,” Link said. “I had several people come by and ask me what the hell I was doing.”

He explained to anxious neighbors that once the fire was out, the tree would appear to have been seared by lightning, adding to its natural appearance.

A few days later his work was vindicated: a woodpecker was drumming away on the charred “snag.”

“That tree will be there for another 50 years,” Link said.

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A grander forest

The Bainbridge Island Land Trust has acquired land to connect two Grand Forest parcels. See related story, page A2.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Russell Link will speak at the Bainbridge Island Land Trust’s annual meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 1 at St. Cecilia Catholic Church.

For information on coexisting with Northwest animals see WDFW’s Living With Wildlife page at http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/living

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