Idaho Afield

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Litter and Wildlife Don’t Mix
by Susan Kain, USFWS



A juvenile fox stumbles about with its head stuck in a canning jar. An osprey chick fails to fledge because its leg is tangled in the bailing twine its parents used to build their nest. A western grebe struggles to escape the fishing line tangled around its legs.

These local incidents serve as sad and vivid reminders that litter and wildlife don’t mix. Although the fox, osprey, and grebe were discovered and helped, that help came too late for the osprey, which died as a result of its injuries. Also, most animals injured or killed by trash go undetected, leaving many people unaware of the scope of the problem.

Litter harms wildlife in a variety of ways. Animals sometimes eat discarded litter they mistake for food. Indigestible litter may accumulate in the gut and cause a fatal blockage or reduce hunger signals required for the animal to maintain healthy feeding activity.

Animals may get entangled in litter, like the osprey and the grebe. Or they may get stuck in glass or plastic containers, like the fox. Even if trapped animals manage to escape, resulting injuries or wasted energy increase their risk of death by predation, disease, or starvation. Litter can have a particularly bad impact during already-stressful times like winter, breeding seasons, and times of drought.

Cigarette butts, though small and sometimes overlooked are the most common litter collected in organized litter cleanups. Fish and birds sometimes mistake butts for food items and eat them. Cigarette butts can also indirectly harm wildlife if they are washed down or blown into lakes or streams. Remaining tobacco and residual toxins trapped in the filter may leach into the water and cause wildlife health problems at even very low concentrations.

Most conscientious and well-informed wildlife-watchers don’t litter non-biodegradable items. However, well-meaning people may think it’s okay to litter biodegradable trash like orange peels or paper, or to “feed the wildlife” by tossing edible leftovers. Even if something is biodegradable, it may take a long time to disappear. Orange peels and cotton rope can stick around for months or years under the right conditions. Also, litter attracts additional litter, so less-conscientious people may be tempted to add their non-biodegradable litter to the pile.

How about “feeding the animals” with our edible leftovers? Even if it’s littered with good intentions, “people food” negatively impacts wildlife in several ways. It is not healthy for wild animals, whose bodies are designed to digest their natural diets. Deer and ducks will happily eat bread, but it can make them sick and distract them from natural, more nutritious foods.

Also, food tossed from cars may attract wildlife to roads, where they are at greater risk of being killed or injured by cars. And, littered food may attract more scavengers, such as crows, raccoons, and skunks. More scavengers may increase predation on other wildlife, particularly young animals.

What can you do to help? First, don’t litter! Also, bring a plastic bag with you when you’re bird-watching or hiking, and try to leave the places you visit cleaner than they were when you arrived. Get in the habit of picking up at least two pieces of litter each day!

Those who want to get more involved can participate in one of many formal litter clean-up programs. Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge near Nampa, for example, recently kicked off a Refuge Helpers Litter Control program at Lake Lowell. As in familiar adopt-a-highway programs, Refuge Helpers adopt parts of the refuge and commit to regularly clearing their area of litter. Also, the Idaho Transportation Department has a statewide adopt-a-highway program, and various agencies, including the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, hold special litter clean-up events.

“Litter and Wildlife Don’t Mix” was originally published in Spring, 2006 issue of Windows to Wildlife To subscribe contact: Windows to Wildlife, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, P. O. Box 25, Boise, ID 83707-0025 Check out their Spring, 2013 issue on Lead Poisoning in wildlife.

(Editor’s Note: I’ve personally seen a sea gull tangled in fishing line on Paddock Reservoir, baby kingbirds die in the nest, tangled in blue tarp shreds easily found on the ground as nest material. I was unable to untangle them. -- Sharon Watson, Idaho Fish n Hunt.)

Copyright 2013 Spring Creek Communications