As Charlotte sprawls, wildlife comes face to face with urban dwellers

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Baby deer run across front lawns. Coyotes pick on small dogs. Mockingbirds dive-bomb Uptown pedestrians. And was there really a bear strolling through StoneCrest?

As cities sprawl, it’s common for suburbanites to run into wild animals on the fringes of development as their natural habitat gives way to homes.

That’s happening in Charlotte, certainly. But North Carolina wildlife experts say that’s not where the story ends.

As older buildings get knocked down and pockets of green get filled in, friction between humans and animals develops even in areas close to the center city. People buying urban homes are surprised to see wildlife in their backyards.

All that adds up to a new and troubling spate of run-ins between human beings and wildlife across Charlotte.

What a lot of people worry about is that any type of development is going to permanently eliminate any chance for wildlife to survive,” said Falyn Owens, an extension wildlife biologist at N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

“It’s much more complex than that.”

What’s the fox say?

Sometimes this shows up in humorous ways.

Two summers ago, people walking down Stonewall Street reported being dive-bombed by mockingbirds while near the NASCAR Hall of Fame. This part of Uptown has been in rapid development, with the new Whole Foods and several other projects ongoing.

This year, similar reports have come from Morehead Square Drive near Midnight Diner and Fitness Connection. It’s possible the same birds moved down the block after construction disturbed their nest.

Mockingbirds are not considered a threat to people. But the run-ins are a symptom of a larger issue.

UNC Charlotte and the Catawba Lands Conservancy have projected that Charlotte will be all but out of developable land by 2030.

[Agenda story: Charlotte will run out of real estate to develop by 2030]

This sprawl has slowly had grave consequences for wildlife.

Take the Meadowlark for example. This type of bird nests on the ground, and thus needs undisturbed open fields. You used to be able to find them in the Cotswold area, but they’ve since left Charlotte entirely, said Ernie McLaney of the Charlotte Chapter of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.

But when development pushes animals out, in most cases they don’t stay gone forever. Once activity settles down, they usually come right back.

Trees, bushes, flowers, pocket parks, urban green space all make good habitats for wildlife. Commonly found: Mice, squirrel, deer, raccoon, opossum, fox, coyote, and certain species of reptiles and birds.

“We get almost all the animals that you’d see anywhere else right in our urban areas,” Owens said. “All of that wildlife that goes away when a place is being newly developed — it all comes back.”

‘A negative impact’

That’s caused a multitude of new issues as development has spiked in the past five years. In some cases, Charlotte newcomers aren’t expecting their new wildlife neighbors. In other cases, infill development disturbs habitat that had become re-settled.

The volume of calls about injured wildlife to Animal Rehabilitators of the Carolinas has tripled in the past few years, said president Ruby Davis.

“Absolutely the development is having a negative impact,” she said. “Folks are encountering them more often and then want the wildlife removed. Nevermind the fact that the wildlife was there first and we ran them out of their habitat for another structure and more concrete.”

Take a look at any Nextdoor page or Facebook group, and you’ll see numerous reports of coyotes howling and deer fighting with dogs, to name a few examples.

“We get a lot of calls from people from people shocked to see a fox in their backyard,” Owens said.

Seen on the Four Mile Creek Greenway in south Charlotte.

Could there really have been a bear in StoneCrest?

The most dramatic recent sighting came in far south Charlotte in the StoneCrest shopping center. A report from WCNC says that on an evening in late June, a black bear wandered through the parking lot.

Is it possible? Sure, experts say. North Carolina’s bear population is on its most solid footing in decades. There have been confirmed sightings in surrounding counties and even in Huntersville.

While nobody seems to have gotten a photo of this bear, it will only become more likely that an ursine wanderer could make it into the city.

“There’s no reason to believe a bear wouldn’t stroll through Charlotte,” Owens said.

What should I do if I have a question about wildlife in my yard?

The NC. Wildlife Resources Commission maintains a phone hotline staffed by a wildlife biologist that’s ready for homeowners with questions or concerns about animals on their property. You can reach it at 866-318-2401.

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Andrew Dunn
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