MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
As the idea of manifest destiny began to unfold in the United States in the 19th century, and the country became more populated and began to grow industrially, environmental encroachment became more of a dominant issue.
This also holds true for the Combat Center, which is built on the former habitat of many desert species, including coyotes.
With the ever-increasing human population in the region, the wild environment has blended into the urban environment, causing dangers for both people and the pre-existing ecosystem.
The Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Division has taken the initiative to protect the base’s human population and the wildlife from each other. One way is the “catch and release program” for coyotes and other desert-dwelling species.
“In general, NREA’s function is to support the Marine Corps’ mission by helping to maintain the environment and by minimizing the risks pertaining to the wildlife,” said Dr. Brian Henen, an NREA ecologist. “Mostly we’re protecting the animals from humans, but we also help to maintain the ecosystem and the integrity of the base.”
The Vista, Calif., native added the dangers of what is known as urban wildlife can upset the balance of the ecosystem if wild creatures become inadvertently dependent on humans to exist.
“Currently in California, we have a huge problem with wildlife becoming integrated with the urban environment we live in,” he said. “As communities grow, they begin to encroach on the environment. Over time, species learn to adapt to that encroachment.”
One recent and frequent example of “urban wildlife” is the sightings of coyotes in the Combat Center’s housing areas.
“Coyotes are a great example of urban wildlife,” said Brent Husung, an NREA natural resources specialist. “They’re a very opportunistic species. Coyotes in our area are not threatened by us anymore, so they take to foraging for food in our trash, eating pet food, and seeking other nourishment not native to their survival.
“One thing people here need to realize is that the base was built on their habitat, so we need to adjust and deal with wildlife in a delicate manner,” he added. “One thing we want to encourage here is that residents need to be aware of their actions.”
Husung referred specifically to things such as residents controlling their trash as opposed to leaving it out overnight and throwing it away in the morning. Coyotes will smell the trash, wander into the housing areas and pick through the unattended trash bags.
He also mentioned people leaving pet food in their yards. Although it is acceptable for pets to eat outside, if the food is left in the yard, coyotes will eat it. If coyotes and other wildlife are given the opportunity to feed on residents’ trash, they will become dependent on it for survival and will continue to roam the housing areas in search of a free meal.
Husung said there were several coyote attacks on people in San Bernardino County last year, all of which were carried out by the urban wildlife.
“Usually, a coyote can be scared off by making noise and throwing rocks,” he said. “However, these urban coyotes do not fear humans and will attack them in order to survive.”
Many coyotes have been spotted in the Combat Center’s training and housing areas. On Aug. 1, the NREA natural resources specialists set up a trap in the Ocotillo Heights housing area after a resident called the Provost Marshal’s Office and reported a coyote skulking around a playground, which could be potentially harmful to children.
The first coyote was trapped Sept. 27, said Husung. NREA retrieved the animal, marked it and released it in the Combat Center’s Sand Hill training area, several miles west of Camp Wilson.
On the morning of Oct. 1, a second coyote was captured in Ocotillo Heights. This coyote was also marked by NREA and subsequently released into the Sand Hill training area. While the coyote was in NREA custody, Henen was able to analyze what it had been eating recently by examining its feces.
“Coyotes are omnivores, meaning they eat all sorts of things,” said Henen. “They eat a lot of lizards and rodents, but also eat berries and other plants as well.
“Because there is an absence of evidence indicating it has been maintaining its natural diet, we can assume this animal has been eating processed food, most likely pet food,” he added. “If it were following its regular diet, we would be able to find traces of hair, scales, bones or plants in the feces, but we can’t.”
Through further analysis, Henen was able to determine the coyote was, in fact, eating processed pet food, most likely dog food.
According to California state law and Combat Center Order 5090.1C, feeding wildlife is not only dangerous, but also illegal. Killing wildlife is also illegal. The California Fish and Game Web site, http://www.keepmewild.org, provides information for many types of desert-dwelling creatures and how to avoid encroaching on their habitats.
Another danger facing Combat Center residents is the possibility of contracting rabies, said Husung. Coyotes and other desert wildlife have been known to carry rabies, and coming into contact with the animals can be hazardous to humans, especially children.
Henen and Husung both agree educating people about local wildlife is paramount. It not only raises awareness among Combat Center residents, but also provides them with knowledge about what to do if the encounter any wildlife.
“Education is extremely important to help maintain natural resources,” said Henen. “The best approach is to be a good scientist, which is someone who is observant, knows about the animals, and knows not to interfere. We can‘t have wildlife becoming dependent on people -- it‘s just too dangerous.”
For more information about wildlife preservation, call NREA at 830-7396, or log on to the California Fish and Game Web site.