Sharing Bainbridge Island with wildlife residents

There have been concerted attempts in recent years to protect enough open space on Bainbridge Island to provide sufficient amounts of vibrant habitat for the wildlife that still exist here. Collaborative actions by the community in general, the city, which in 2008 paid consultants to put together a comprehensive open space study, the Bainbridge Island Land Trust (BILT) and the island’s Metropolitan Park and Recreation District indicate that islanders are serious about sharing their 28-square-mile sylvan home with other species.

Michael Pratt

There have been concerted attempts in recent years to protect enough open space on Bainbridge Island to provide sufficient amounts of vibrant habitat for the wildlife that still exist here.

Collaborative actions by the community in general, the city, which in 2008 paid consultants to put together a comprehensive open space study, the Bainbridge Island Land Trust (BILT) and the island’s Metropolitan Park and Recreation District indicate that islanders are serious about sharing their 28-square-mile sylvan home with other species.

The island’s population boon in recent decades, especially during the 1990s, seriously threatened many animals and birds because “exurban” developments, essentially the unorganized spreading of land clearing and home building at low densities in rural settings, has had harmful effects on the natural environment‚ specifically, native plant and animal communities.

The island’s large size helps it support more species, research indicates, but it’s also critical that there are larger, more diverse patches of land available, such as the Grand Forest plots located in the central part of the island.

According to the open space study, “researchers have found strong correlations between habitat patch size and biodiversity, including several studies conducted in the Puget Sound region.” Plus, “corridors or connections between relatively isolated habitat areas, can provide opportunities for species to move between suitable habitat in areas of less suitable habitat.”

This formula for success is being honored with the planned purchase of the 31-acre Hill Top Farm that sits between the east and west plots of the Grand Forest. With the assistance of corridor easements, there will be connectivity from State Route 305, beginning at the east border of Meigs Farm between Koura Road and McRedmond Lane, all the way to Battle Point and Puget Sound.

“The Land Trust is determined to create a contiguous corridor of large chunks of habitat and Hill Top is important for that,” said Asha Rehnberg, BILT’s executive director. “And Gazzam Lake (park and wildlife refuge) is very important too. Our effort, which involves ensuring healthy habitat for the island’s wildlife, is especially critical for predators because removal of them from the food chain can cause a lot of problems.”

The open space study stressed that habitat protection will be an ongoing struggle unless the community invests in it by ensuring the island’s land use code reflects its goals. And equally as significant, perhaps, is the community’s understanding and response to the wildlife with which it shares the island.

Islanders who work daily with island critters, such as Mike Pratt, director of wildlife services and West Sound Wildlife Shelter, say that many of them are on the edge of extinction because of a lack of understanding by the island’s dominant specie.

“Most people here are urban in nature and their tendency if there’s a perceived problem with an animal is to either have it relocated or kill it with poison,” Pratt said. “They need to learn how to share the island with all of our wildlife.”

The shelter’s primary concern is to offer a 24-hour, seven-day, health care service or sanctuary for animals and birds, but there’s an education element that is also important.

“We’re specialists,” said Pratt, a biologist who has worked at the shelter for nearly five years, “and we have an opportunity here to teach people who don’t understand animals, in fact, many actually fear them. Through education, we hope to help people change their habits.”

Residents, he said, want open space, and with that comes the responsibility of coexisting in a healthy way with wildlife that essentially want the same things people want, food and space.

“Animals are always adapting to their environment and that includes humans and their developments,” he said. “We attract them because they might find shelter under our houses or there is food available. And they will lose their fear as they adjust to us. People have to realize animals are here to stay. Trapping and relocating them doesn’t work.”

Residents often become fearful when large predators such as cougars and bears are seen on the island, though those are rare occurrences. A cougar was spotted by construction workers in the southern park of the Meigs Farm area a few months ago, and it’s not unusual to find bear scat in the Gazzam Lake area during the fall, according to Pratt and biologists for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Predators will take advantage of low tides to cross the northern part of Port Orchard Bay, especially where it narrows between east Kitsap County mainland and the shoreline south of Fletcher Bay.

“They can cross over pretty easy,” Pratt said. “But they come and go. We heard about the cougar and did some research that indicated a big cat was around, but not anymore. We assume it went back to the other side. And we get some calls for bear sightings. People can get pretty excited about that.”

When they are around developed areas, he said, “it’s usually because people have a bird feeder on their property. Take it away and the bears will leave.”

A biologist for Fish and Wildlife said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were a pair of cougars who occasionally visit the island, perhaps even make a temporary home here because of the large deer population. He added that bears will feel some population pressure to leave the mainland for the island, but there’s no indication that there stays here are transitory.

Pratt said people need to understand that food left outside will attract animals who generally eat other wild things but will take a handout if it’s there to be eaten.

Coyotes, raccoons, weasels and skunks are found in abundant numbers on the island. Their foods of choice include large numbers of rodents, reptiles, amphibians, shrews and moles. Deer are generally left alone except by the few larger predators that visit. Pratt said river otters are also plentiful. Beavers have been spotted at Meigs and Manzanita, but numbers are dwindling, he said, as is the red fox population.

“The otters are making a comeback,” Pratt said, “because there are good food sources with the developments along the shores. They love hanging out around the decks. They like cat food, garden veggies, compost. Almost anything edible.”

Cat and dog owners often complain about coyotes and raccoons, Pratt said. “Coyotes mostly eat rats, mice, voles and shrews. They also like bunnies and baby raccoons. If people don’t want to lose their cats they should keep them in the house at night. Early morning is a dangerous time for them.”

He said that the poisons put out to kill coyotes are unfortunately often eaten by dogs, cats and raptors.

“Usually coyotes are smarter than that,” he said. “If there’s less food around the coyotes will usually move to a more populated area on their own because they have to work hard for rabbits and deer.”

Pratt said he’s also received some calls lately about “dangerous” barred owls attacking people on trails.

“It’s just another education thing,” he said. “They will protect their babies very aggressively during spring and summer. They only weigh a pound or two, but, yes, they will dive at you because they think you’re a threat. Mama raccoons can be tough, too. But that doesn’t mean we should kill them.”

Pratt said he worries more about the consequences of people having trouble co-existing with animals than the other way around.

“Generally, this is good habitat in that there’s a lot of food around, especially near developments and the corridors are a good sized. It’s a pretty healthy place for them. But every time something is built animals are displaced.”

But more can be done.

For example, should there be an effort to save the dwindling number of beaver? A beaver has become road kill on SR-305 at least twice during the last two years, likely leaving the large wetlands at Meigs Farm because there’s similar habitat on the other side of the road.

The Open Space Study suggested that the city should include Wildlife Corridor Network connectivity practices when conducting major road improvement projects, including the possible addition of a simple feature such as the placement of oversized culverts to facilitate the movement of wildlife across a stretch of highway.

It could be called the Save A Beaver Culvert.

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