How California’s drought impacts wildlife populations and their behavior

The COVID-19 pandemic encouraged wildlife, looking for easy food, to visit quiet neighborhoods they normally didn't. The drought may now be forcing them to do the same. 

Experts say, though you might like to, do not leave food and water out for wild animals showing up in neighborhoods.

The bear that showed up in a tree near central San Anselmo this week is one of several recent North Bay sightings. 

It could be simply be animals looking for new or larger territory. It could also be the result of a rapidly worsening drought denying creatures  traditional, natural sources of food and water. 

"It's more likely, I believe, that because of the drought that we're experiencing, that it is resources," said Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue Executive Director Doris Duncan. 

"They have to go where the food is, where the resources are. If there's no water out there for them, they're gonna go where they can find it," said WildCare Veterinarian Dr. Juliana Sorem.

WildCare in San Rafael and Sonoma County Wild Rescue say they have seen big fluctuations in the number and type of injured, abandoned or helpless animals being brought into them such as a baby raccoon they are caring for. 

"This year, we have not had a single baby skunk and normally, by this time in the season, we would have had twenty, thirty, forty baby skunks," said Sorem.

"It’s all very different. We have a lot more orphans coming in where usually the parents are would still be caring for them and they would be plentiful," said Duncan.

Salmonella outbreaks have occurred in birds that congregate around reliable human supplied bird feeders as opposed to finding food elsewhere in nature. 

"We're also seeing outbreaks of disease. In particular, we are seeing an outbreak of canine distemper in susceptible species and our local susceptible species raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes. We did get an otter, also with distemper," said Sorem.

Distemper easily jumps species. "My suspicion is that the scarcity of resources is causing animals to congregate in ways they would not under normal circumstances," said Sorem. 

It’s showing up in greater numbers overall. "Our hotline is up, you know, twenty percent. So, those people calling in to ask us for help around a wildlife question, a wildlife emergency," said Weisel.

One thing is for sure, as the drought wears on through the summer, the stress on wildlife will get greater and greater. " You know, animals, they die, that's what happens and the strong ones survive," said Duncan.

Of the thirty Sonoma County release sites, only a half dozen are in use because the rest have no water.