New Castle News

Mitchel Olszak

October 8, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Predatory animals expand their ranges

NEW CASTLE — Lions and coyotes and bears! Oh my!

It’s no secret that once-exotic animals are making a comeback in many parts of America. Even here in Lawrence County, we have our share of black bears and coyotes.

In other parts of the United States, we are seeing expansions in the populations of such animals as wolves and mountain lions. As you might imagine, whenever humans and these creatures operate in close proximity to one another, problems arise.

Those problems occasionally result in human death or injury, but not very often. Wolves, for example, have no track record of attacking humans. And despite their size and strength, bears are mostly scavengers and foragers, not predators. About the only time bears attack humans is when they perceive a threat or if they are absolutely starving to death.

Individual coyotes are too small to attack humans, at least adults. Conceivably, a child playing in a yard could be targeted by a coyote. But again, humans aren’t seen as a food source under normal circumstances.

Mountain lions are a different story. In the American West, there have been multiple accounts of humans who were killed for food by these predators. Cats are by nature hunters and opportunistic. An isolated human is indeed at risk.

I bring all this up after reading news accounts of a symposium last week at Ohio State University in Columbus. Urban ecologist Stan Gehrt, who has been observing the activities of about 700 coyotes in the Chicago area for the past 12 years, spoke at the event. His main conclusion: Coyotes are doing quite nicely around the Windy City.

For instance, his data indicates pups born in the suburbs of Chicago are five times more likely to survive than their counterparts in more rural areas. That suggests there’s plenty to eat and little to worry about.

And that means the populations of these suburban coyotes are almost sure to grow.

But what really attracted attention to Gehrt’s symposium was not so much the talk of coyotes, but his speculation that their expanding presence around humans may be a hint of what’s to come. If coyotes can thrive near people, what about bears and mountain lions?

The growing ranges of these creatures will have consequences.

From a practical standpoint, the increased presence of such animals leads to damaged property more than human harm. Bears will destroy bee hives, break down fruit trees, smash bird feeders and toss trash cans to get at food.

And coyotes and mountain lions can attack farm animals of different types, making easy meals of domesticated flocks.

Gehrt argues that eradication efforts aimed at predators may not work. He cites the targeted killings of coyotes in some areas. Within weeks, he said, other coyotes move in to fill the niche.

But in the past, eradication obviously worked, or we wouldn’t be talking about the expanded range of these creatures today. However, hunting projects in the suburbs, or using poisons to kill unwanted animals, come with their own set of problems.

I also suspect that larger predator populations won’t be as difficult to control as coyotes. They are more likely to make their presence known, and they are not always as elusive as the smaller coyotes.

Plus, bears and mountain lions aren’t inclined to reproduce as fast as coyotes, which is a big factor in keeping their populations down.

So while we may not have to contend with mountain lions in Lawrence County anytime soon, some places will. Nature, in its assorted guises, is always looking to take back what humans have acquired.

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Mitchel Olszak
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