Don’t Panic, but Big Scary Carnivores Live Among Us

We need to learn how to coexist with coyotes, mountain lions, and bears because they are adapting to living with humans.
An adult black bear walks through a residential neighborhood near Los Angeles on Sept. 9, 2012. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)
Jul 22, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Most people are clueless that carnivores—big, scary flesh eaters—can adapt to live among us, unnoticed, even in the most densely populated landscapes. By adapt, I mean, for instance, that 4,000 coyotes are living in and around the Chicago Loop, without incident. One especially wily pack has even chosen to make its den on Navy Pier, one of the world’s top 50 tourist attractions. The 9 million or so visitors a year who come to ride the giant Ferris wheel or see an IMAX movie never notice.

It’s the same in Southern California, where a mountain lion hunts deer in Griffith Park, in the middle of Los Angeles, and may recently have snatched a koala from the city zoo. In central Spain, wolves bed down in agricultural fields on the outskirts of Madrid and picnic on wild boar. In Norway, lynx hunt in the forests just outside Oslo. In Mumbai, India, in the most spectacular case of mutual adaptation, 35 leopards live in an unfenced national park in the middle of the city’s 21 million people—and because leopards and people alike have learned to be careful, there hasn’t been a human fatality in three years.

Living together with carnivores, and even walking the same footpaths (preferably at different times), is becoming the new normal as the world’s population expands to 10 billion people in this century. The carnivores simply have no choice but to live in human-dominated landscapes, because those are just about the only landscapes left. A new commentary in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution argues that we need to make coadaptation work with a combination of “social legitimacy” for them and “tolerable levels of risk” for us. Otherwise, many carnivore species will disappear completely.

For coauthor Neil H. Carter, a wildlife ecologist at Boise State University, the term “social legitimacy” means that we need to get over the idea that “they don’t belong here,” in “my city” or “outside my door.” Carnivores were typically living in this countryside long before our cities and suburbs sprang up, and they have as much right to the landscape as we do. Adapting isn’t just about putting up with carnivores. For Carter, it’s about recognizing them as part of the natural richness of the habitat.

Europe is one place that seems to be getting coadaptation right. Carnivores there have come back in a big way, partly because farmers have abandoned marginal lands in remote areas, turning that acreage back to nature. The European Union’s habitat directive, which functions like the Endangered Species Act in the United States, has also made a major difference.

The result is a carnivore resurgence over the past 30 years that makes American boasting about “great open spaces” seem like hollow rhetoric. Not counting Russia, Europe is home to 500 million people—and 9,000 lynx, 12,000 wolves, and 17,000 brown bears. That compares with about 3,000 wolves and just 1,800 grizzly bears in our Lower 48. Even counting Alaska, we don’t compare.

John D.C. Linnell, coauthor of the new commentary, pointed out the irony. Germany had no wolves for many decades, and the great proponent of American wilderness, Aldo Leopold, was flatly disparaging after a 1935 visit: “We Americans, in most states at least, have not yet experienced a bear-less, eagle-less, cat-less, wolf-less woods,” he wrote. “Germany strove for maximum yields of both timber and game and got neither.” But Germany now has 30 wolf packs and perhaps 200 wolves, roughly double the number in the American Southwest, where Leopold first conceived his wilderness ideas.

So what does it take to increase populations of this country’s major predators? They need natural habitat that’s well protected and has an adequate prey base. “Green bridges”—wildlife overpasses and underpasses—also make a significant difference in reducing deaths from road accidents. Willing ranchers need help going back to old methods of coexistence—using guard dogs and even range riders or cowboys to oversee their livestock. They need help establishing marketing outlets and finding buyers for “wildlife friendly” products.

What the carnivores need most is a change in attitude. “We have more experience with failures,” Carter acknowledged. A system that compensates farmers when predators kill their livestock might work in Europe, but it “has failed miserably across the American West, largely because wildlife managers didn’t take the time to understand why people were so vehemently opposed to wolves. It wasn’t the economic loss,” he said. Instead, the wolves became a symbol of lost control and of big government butting into their lives.

People need “a sense of ownership in the whole decision-making process,” Carter said. Too often, ordinary people feel left out. “Their value system and their input was never incorporated, and everything that happens after that is tainted because it was never legitimate to begin with.”

Beyond that, all of us need to get back to the idea that carnivores “belong here; they are a part of the ecosystem. They have always been a part of the ecosystem,” said Carter. It’s not enough for our fish and game agencies to stock some trout for fishers or build up elk populations for hunters. That same level of effort should be going to rebuild our carnivores, because they are part of the character and greatness of our country.