Raccoons, skunks, possums and certain other animals have long been city dwellers, but now larger wild carnivores are moving into urban areas, according to a symposium presented today at EcoSummit 2012, an international conference held in Columbus, Ohio.
Leading the way are coyotes, which have established a territory just five miles from Chicago O'Hare International Airport. They appear to be paving the way for other large mammalian carnivores.
"Mountain lions are already living in the outskirts of Los Angeles, Denver, and other western cities," Stanley Gehrt, who led the research, told Discovery News. "Black bears are living in a variety of cities in the West and in the East. Wolves have yet to make a regular appearance, but they are getting closer. In Europe, there are urban brown bears that act much like raccoons over here."
Gehrt, an associate professor of environment and natural resources at Ohio State University, is studying the phenomenon, with a focus on coyotes. Since 2000, he and his team have captured and placed radio collars on about 680 coyotes, with 50 or 60 being tracked at any one time.
Gehrt estimates that about 2000 coyotes live in the Chicago metro area. They are sharing the territory with 9 million people in some 250 separate municipalities.
As for why coyotes and other predators are moving nearer to us, there are a few different reasons. One, he said, is that "as cities continue to expand and development consumes land, we are moving into their territories."
Like humans, the large animals are also attracted to the relative ease of city living. Gehrt explained that "they don't have to go far to find food and water. They're finding everything they need right there, in the suburbs of Chicago."
He believes coyotes could be a test case for other animals, such as wolves, mountain lions and bears. Mountain lions have already been seen on the fringes of cities, with one shot very close to the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago.
Coexisting with such predators often makes humans uneasy, but Gehrt and others suspect that we're probably going to have to get accustomed to the situation.
"It used to be rural areas where we would have this challenge of coexistence versus conflict with carnivores," he said. "In the future, and I would say currently, it's cities where we're going to have this intersection between people and carnivores."
He continued, "We used to think only little carnivores could live in cities, and even then we thought they couldn't really achieve large numbers. But we're finding that these animals are much more flexible than we gave them credit for and they're adjusting to our cities."
Government eradication programs have proven to be costly and unpopular. While interactions with the big carnivores can be dangerous, their presence actually benefits us more.
Coyotes, for example, enjoy feasting on deer that also may thrive in suburbia. Gehrt pointed out that "more people are injured and killed by deer-auto collisions than are threatened by carnivores." Coyotes also dine on rodents, bugs, rabbits and geese, providing a benefit by reducing human exposure to diseases carried by those species.
Unfortunately for pet owners, coyotes and the other large meat eaters may also occasionally kill cats and smaller dogs left outside. Stewart Breck of the USDA National Wildlife Research Center recommends not leaving food out for pets or intentionally feeding coyotes.
Breck told Discovery News that he agrees with Gehrt's assessment. The focus of his research now "is to determine if urban coyotes are bolder or more aggressive than rural coyotes and whether we can alter the behavior of coyotes by getting members of the public to actively engage coyotes when they encounter them."
Often coyotes will run away if people yell and wave their arms, "reestablishing human dominance," Breck said. But he advises not to engage a mother coyote with pups, as she will likely try to defend them no matter what.