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Natural predators an aspect of Santa Clarita Valley life

Environment: The community’s continued expansion reveals a layer of the local area

Posted: June 20, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: June 20, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Coyote

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One morning last week Fair Oaks Ranch resident Jenifer Ranieri was exercising while her five kids headed outside to play.

But they stopped before they set foot outside.

 “They were screaming, ‘Mom, Mom, there was a coyote in our backyard, and it was huge,’” Ranieri said.

The wild canine was “just sniffing around” inside the 6-foot-tall metal fence, she said. But it might not have been so obvious as the kids went outside, and that’s what worries her.

Ranieri’s was the latest in a string of coyote sightings, which have been accompanied by dog-snatchings, in Fair Oaks Ranch, a community on the edge of the Santa Clarita Valley in the type of zone scientists call a “wildlife-urban interface.”

Coyote attacks on children are rare but not unheard of. Coyote attacks on small dogs have escalated in Fair Oaks Ranch over the past few months.

‘Edge of wilderness’
“People need to do what they can to buffer themselves on the edge of wilderness,” said Ranger Frankie Hoffman, a recreational services supervisor at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center and a 15-year veteran of the Santa Clarita Valley’s wild side. “You can’t blame animals doing what animals do.”

Coyotes are only one of a number of predators on the upper levels of the food chain in the Santa Clarita Valley, Hoffman noted. 

“Coyotes, foxes, bobcats and mountain lions are part of our natural environment as much as squirrels and birds,” he said.

In January 2009, a mountain lion was photographed at night by an automatic field camera set up near Walker Ranch, the ranger said. Walker Ranch is a section of Placerita Canyon that’s just across the road and over the hill from the suburban community of Fair Oaks Ranch.

Nearly two years after that, on Christmas Day 2010, visitors to the nature center reported a mountain lion sighting.

“We have patrons all the time saying they’ve spotted bobcats and other carnivores such as the mountain lion,” Hoffman said.

Placerita Canyon Nature Center is less than a mile and a half south of Fair Oaks Ranch, with only hills, trees and valleys intervening.

Silently in the night
Like coyotes, bobcats and foxes can prey on house cats and small dogs.

However, among the more dangerous of local predators are great horned owls, which swoop silently from above and carry off their prey at night, officials say. Their prey can include small cats and dogs.

Animal for animal, mountain lions are the most dangerous of the local predators. But the cats are rare; each has an extensive range, and they are solitary animals except during mating season.

All the predators are important in maintaining a natural balance, Hoffman said.

“We need them as a major role in the food chain,” he said. “They are a major cleaning force and we need them.  We need the big and the small.”

The interface
As development in the Santa Clarita Valley sprawls outward, more and more homes will be located in the expanding outer edges of established communities, often putting residents new to the area right next to wild animals’ habitat.

Fair Oaks Ranch — which is built up a canyon on the east side of the valley and borders directly on undeveloped land backed by the Angeles National Forest — is a classic example.

Frustration and even fear can result in the species at the very top of the food chain: mankind.

One resident with a horrifying story of a coyote killing her dog held the business card of a coyote trapper as she told her story to The Signal.

Lost pets
In the last year, Anita Smith has lost both a dog and a cat to coyotes in Fair Oaks Ranch.

In August, six months after having moved into the neighborhood, Henry, her 10-year-old cat with folded ears, was attacked in broad daylight.

“I felt confident it was the morning and it was lit,” she said. “He would just go and lay on the back patio — that was before I was aware of the coyote problem.”

What she found was bloody signs of a struggle in the backyard.

Smith’s second pet to vanish was her fluffy 18-pound Lhasa apso dog named Gracie.

“They need to put it in the Fair Oaks Ranch newsletter,” Smith said. “Especially since there’s new people moving in.”

Smith said a friend gave her the business card for the coyote trapper. But state law prohibits trapping predators and relocating them elsewhere.

Christine Franchimone owned two dachshunds, Spartacus and Claudia, 10 and 8 pounds respectively.

On June 1, a neighbor called her.

 “She looked out her back window and saw the coyote attacking my dog. She started banging on the window, but it was no use,” Franchimone said.

“I’d like to see the county step in and do something,” she said. “We need some sort of protection, because otherwise we’re just prisoners here in our homes.”

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