Remember when Chicago Bears were just a football team? Soon enough, bears and other large mammals could move closer to urban areas, according to a researcher who has been tracking large mammals in the Chicago area for more than a decade.
For the last six years, a small coyote community has been living just five miles from Chicago's O'Hare airport, according to Stan Gehrt, an environment and natural resources professor at Ohio State University. Coyotes are showing up more often in urban areas and could one day give way to larger mammals such as mountain lions, wolves, and potentially even bears.
"The coyote is the test case for other animals. Raccoons, skunks, foxes—they've already been able to penetrate the urban landscape pretty well," he said in a statement. "The jury's out with what's going to happen with the bigger [animals]."
According to Gehrt, about 2,000 coyotes live in the Chicago metropolitan area. He says the animals have adapted and are able to find food—they dine on rodents, rabbits, deer, and sometimes stray or lost dogs and cats.
Coyote attacks on humans and pets have been increasing in recent years, especially near Chicago. In Wheaton, 25 miles west of the city, there have been two coyote attacks on dogs within the last week. Coyotes kill dozens of pets each year in southern California. At least four children have been attacked by coyotes in Canada and the United States so far this year, though there have been only two confirmed fatal coyote attacks. In 1981, a Glendale, Calif., toddler was killed by a coyote, and in October, 2009, a Canadian folk singer was attacked and killed by a pack of coyotes while hiking in Nova Scotia.
"We used to think only little carnivores could live in cities," he said. "We're finding that [larger] animals are much more flexible than we gave them credit for and they're adjusting to our cities."
That's because in urban environments, food may be more plentiful, and there are even fewer larger predators to deal with. Cars and other human intervention are coyotes and other large mammals' most dangerous predators.
"We are the only thing slowing their population down," Gehrt said.
In recent years, numerous large mammals have been spotted in urban areas. In 2008, a cougar wandered onto the University of Maryland campus, and a mountain lion was recently shot and killed in Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood.
"It used to be rural areas where we would have this challenge of coexistence versus conflict with carnivores," he said. Gehrt says if people come into contact with a coyote, they should throw rocks at it, wave their arms, and yell in an effort to scare the predator off.
"In the future … it's cities where we're going to have this intersection between people and carnivores," he adds.
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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.