LOS ANGELES — Prowling coyotes and bobcats. Nesting great blue herons. Schools of carp, tilapia and largemouth bass.
Graffiti, trash and homeless encampments remain along the canal. Yet nature holds on. The water may not be safe enough to wade in, but for many animals, including more than a dozen types of birds, the river is a sanctuary.
“Species like coyotes can persist in these small habitat fragments and find a way,” said Justin Brown, a biologist at the National Park Service’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. “They can use these wide varieties of landscapes, and we don’t have a full grasp of what they’re capable of doing.”
To find out, a team led by Brown has installed 39 motion-activated remote cameras along 30 miles of the basin and tributaries. It’s step one for what’s being called the L.A. River Wildlife Camera Project, an effort that Brown, who has spent three years tracking coyotes in the city’s core, hopes will eventually influence how residents deal with wildlife and reduce human-animal conflict.
The big question that Brown wonders aloud: “What level of urbanization is acceptable for these species? There’s places I see skunks and raccoons and other animals, but there’s no really solid data.”
Preliminary images captured in 2016 and a 2017 pilot program revealed photo evidence of a healthy abundance of wildlife along the waterways. Researchers think these patches of habitat may be used as transportation arteries for animals traveling through the city sprawl.
“If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see a lot of animals about,” said Charlotte Parry, the executive director of the SAMO Fund, which is funding the camera project with a $23,300 grant from a cosmetics company. “Understanding what the wildlife is and what they’re trying to achieve is what this is all about.”
The project will be part of the Urban Wildlife Information Network, a nationwide wildlife monitoring program in major cities to help study and understand the animals living alongside people. It began in 2010 in Chicago, where remote camera traps were used to track and study birds, bats, coyotes and other species that make their way in a city with nearly 3 million residents.
Brown and the Park Service are teaming with several nonprofits to monitor the L.A. River cameras. The images they capture will be uploaded to Zooinverse, a public platform for crowdsourced research, where viewers can tag and identify animals spotted and their precise locations. He estimates the initial funding for the project will last two years.
But it won’t necessarily be easy.
“There’s so many different land owners along the river, so getting access to places is difficult,” Brown said. “One of the biggest hurdles is getting the permits to put the cams out.” Another is theft. Even though the cameras are stored in locked metal boxes, he said, “we’ve already had one stolen.”
A study area that contains trash dumps and homeless campsites also doesn’t provide ideal work conditions. Volunteer groups regularly haul away metric tons of plastic bags and cigarette butts and abandoned shopping cars, and authorities sometimes shut down tent camps. But neither fix is lasting. There’s talk from lawmakers of building permanent housing along the river, which could affect the study.
Brown said it’s unlikely that people living along the river are hunting, though they may be fishing. But they’re influencing animals in other ways, he said.
“We’ve seen some homeless folks who feed coyotes and raccoons … which isn’t good. Others set up camps in areas that interfere with movement, under bridges that animals use to avoid bigger roads,” he said. “It’s a tough thing to deal with, [but] most of them are generally pretty friendly and not much of a threat. We play it site by site.”
Brown said he expects to have the photos on Zooinverse and volunteers in the field, monitoring the cameras, by midsummer. Other regional programs that relied on volunteers, including coyote scat dissection and bald eagle counts, have proved to be hits with the public, so he’s optimistic this one will, too.
“I’d like to see this project go five, six, seven years so we can see changes with droughts, wet cycles, lots of different variables,” he said, though that will require additional funding. “I know these animals are around in urban areas. This will let us know where they are.”