Raccoon sightings in Prince George could mean they're set to spread to more B.C. cities
Raccoons have expanded into northern Alberta and Manitoba; experts say northern B.C. could be next
A spate of raccoon sightings in Prince George could be a sign the mammals are expanding their range to include northern British Columbia, according to wildlife experts.
At least one 'masked bandit' has been captured on camera multiple times in the East Central Fort George neighbourhood, and residents of other parts of the city have reported raccoon sightings as well.
While they are common in Vancouver and Victoria, the animals are rarely seen in northern British Columbia and aren't included in local wildlife guides. Maps from the Smithsonian, B.C. government and Canadian Geographic limit their range in the province to Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, the Lower Mainland and parts of the Okanagan.
However, raccoons have recently moved into Calgary and are appearing in greater numbers in Kamloops. Prince George could be the next city on the list.
Highly adaptable animals
"They are seemingly as adaptable as any species of mammal that I can think of," said Sam Zeveloff, a zoology professor and author of Raccoons, A Natural History. "They seem to be very capable of using what's available."
Zeveloff said one of the species' greatest strengths is its ability to find and digest a wide variety of food, from hunting and killing other animals to eating pizza out of the trash.
"They have such broad taste that I would be surprised if they couldn't find what to eat either in the wild or in suburban or urban areas."
He said raccoons moving into northern B.C. would be part of a pattern of expansion being seen around the world, where the animals are establishing themselves in new parts of Manitoba and Utah alongside European countries such as Germany and Austria.
"It apparently was just a question of time before some would migrate naturally to your area, and it probably won't be long before they're gaining a foothold as well," he said of the sightings.
"It's happened here [Utah]. It's happened elsewhere, and you may be in for it there, as well."
'Pioneering individuals' test new homes
Frank Ritcey of WildSafe B.C. agreed with that assessment. He's seen the number of raccoons in his Kamloops neighbourhood increase in recent years and suspects milder winters and changing ecosystems are helping the animals gain footholds in areas they weren't previously found.
"It's called a pioneering individual in populations," he explained. "They'll move up into an area and try to establish, pioneer, in that area, and if the weather conditions in that area hold good for it, it will establish itself there ... that's how nature determines where the range for individual species is, by always pushing the boundaries."
While raccoons are considered pests by many, Ritcey said he doesn't think it's a good idea to try and prevent them from expanding their range naturally.
Instead, he said people should be sure the raccoons are surviving on their own rather than from human intervention. He warned against well-meaning people putting food out for raccoons to help them survive the winter.
"It's the same advice we have regarding bears: manage your attractants, keep your garbage indoors, pick your fruit regularly. Raccoons are very good at getting into small openings. If you've got chickens, an electric fence is really important."
He also warned pet owners that raccoons have been known to kill cats.
"It goes from being a cute visitor to being a real problem in the neighbourhood," he said. "Keep the wildlife wild. Don't feed it. Don't encourage it into your area and let nature take its course."
To determine if raccoons are truly spreading, sightings need to be documented,said Ritcey. He recommended e-Fauna B.C., a project led by UBC in which users can take photos of wildlife and upload information about where they were spotted.
Over time, wildlife groups are able to use the information to determine whether the presence of a new species in an area is unusual or a more permanent change.
To hear the full story, click on the audio labeled: Are raccoons expanding into northern British Columbia?
Raccoon video courtesy Emily Anne Christensen and Kali Wright.