Coyotes In Cities Paving Way For Larger Carnivores?

on October 05 2012 3:48 PM
Coyote
The growing population of coyotes in U.S. cities may be a sign that other animals, like black bears and mountain lions, may start craving urban lifestyles in larger numbers. Flickr via Creative Commons/John Picken

Just like how an influx of bohemians into a neighborhood sets the stage for eventual gentrification by the stroller set, waves of cosmopolitan coyotes could be paving the way for larger carnivores, one researcher says.

Ohio State University scientist Stan Gehrt, who heads up the Cook County Illinois Coyote Project, has been tracking urban coyote packs in the Chicago metro area since 2000. His team has put radio collars on about 680 coyotes, less than half of the estimated 2,000 coyotes that Gehrt estimates call the Windy City home.

In a talk on Friday at the EcoSummit conference, Gehrt highlighted all the ways that coyotes have adapted to city life. They are decidedly unpicky eaters, foraging for whatever’s available. When coyotes are relocated or poisoned through city or state programs, a new batch moves in and starts reproducing. The biggest danger they face is getting hit by cars.

Gehrt thinks the coyote is proof that larger carnivores can penetrate the urban landscape, following the path of smaller animals like foxes, skunks and raccoons.

But will any larger animals be able to adapt to city life? Gehrt thinks that black bears might be the most likely candidates.

“Bears are like great big raccoons,” Gehrt explained in a phone interview.

In some ways, bears are even better at urban living than coyotes, he says. They aren’t as territorial as coyotes, meaning they can tolerate other bears living relatively close by. They are also eager to chow down on human food, whereas some coyotes will ignore it even when it’s placed right in front of them.

Mountain lions, however, are another story, Gehrt says.

Thanks to the quirks of their digestive system, mountain lions have to subsist on meat -- no snacking on potato chips or other dumpster leavings for them. And unlike coyotes, mountain lions aren’t usually content to eat roadkill.

However, just because mountain lions can’t live in the city doesn’t mean they won’t visit. Gehrt pointed to one population of mountain lions living at the edge of Santa Monica that have been occasionally encroached on the California city. Just this past May, a 3-year-old male cougar was shot by the Santa Monica police when it turned up downtown.

Coyotes rarely attack humans but are known to sometimes make a meal of cats or small dogs. Most wildlife officials recommend that people keep pets and pet food inside at night to reduce the risk of coyote predation.

But there is some evidence to suggest that coyotes are getting bolder as they become more accustomed to people.

In 2012, there have been at least four confirmed coyote attacks on humans, all involving children under 18 years old, none resulting in death. An 8-year-old Ontario girl was bitten on the leg, and a 5-year-old was bitten on the back. Only two fatal coyote attacks have ever been confirmed: one on a three-year-old California girl in 1991 and another in 2009, when 19-year-old Canadian folk singer Taylor Mitchell was attacked by a group of coyotes while hiking.

Given coyotes’ fecundity and wiles, the best strategy for managing the coyote population probably isn’t attempting to remove it completely -- that would be a waste of time and money, Gehrt says.

Instead, he says, cities should focus on removing problem coyotes and educating the public on their habits, especially focusing on warning against feeding the animals.

“In the most severe conflicts we’ve had with coyotes, the most consistent theme was that people were feeding them,” Gehrt said.

New Yorkers might welcome a coyote or two in the boroughs, since they like to make meals out of rats and pigeons.

“They’re not always that bad to live with,” Gehrt says.