No, this article isn't about the post-apocalyptic world of the Walking Dead. However, urban coyotes and other large carnivores are currently eyeing US cities as a possible site for food and shelter.
Indeed, scientists have located the smallest known coyote territory ever observed about five miles from Chicago O'Hare International Airport. According to Stan Gehrt, an associate professor of environment and natural resources at Ohio State University, the coyote community has maintained its existence within about a third of a square mile for at least 6 years.
"That's an indication 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. Frankly, it amazes me, as coyotes are the largest of the mammalian carnivores to have made their way to, and thrived in, urban settings," Gehrt explained.
"The coyote is the test case for other animals. Raccoons, skunks, foxes – they've already been able to penetrate the urban landscape pretty well. The coyote is the most recent and largest. The jury's out with what's going to happen with the bigger ones."
As Gehrt notes, the bigger ones include wolves, bears and mountain lions, with the latter species having been observed on the fringes of cities already - and one recently shot near the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago.
Since the tracking of urban coyotes kicked off in 2000, Gehrt and his team have captured and placed radio collars on about 680 coyotes, with 50 or 60 being tracked at any one time. He estimates that about 2,000 coyotes live in the Chicago metro area, along with 9 million people in some 250 separate municipalities. At times, this co-existence can cause uneasiness among humans. But by Gehrt's estimation, all species of urban dwellers are probably going to have to get used to it.
"It used to be rural areas where we would have this challenge of coexistence versus conflict with carnivores. In the future, and I would say currently, it's cities where we're going to have this intersection between people and carnivores," he said.
"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. That's going to put the burden back on us: Are we going to be able to adjust to them living with us or are we not going to be able to coexist?"
Gehrt also noted that the tricky part of any government-sponsored eradication program is the question of cost versus benefit. For example, when the study began in 2000, several communities around Chicago trapped and killed coyotes found within their boundaries. However, Gehrt estimates that only 10 percent of communities have such programs in place now.
"I think those programs will go away, too. It costs money, and it upsets some residents who want coyotes living there. So there is conflict, cost and lack of effectiveness. "We have great data in areas where removal was done. You pull them out, and literally within just a few weeks, new coyotes moved in and set up a new pack and began reproducing right away."
Gehrt points out that the encroachment goes both ways. Humans have not been a predominantly urban species for all that long worldwide, though about 80 percent of US residents live in cities. One reason humans flocked to cities was to get away from the risks associated with living near wild carnivores.
"The funny thing is that now we have more people on earth and bigger cities than ever, we also now have carnivores moving into cities. It's a two-way street: We're expanding cities into their territories and they're also coming in," he said.
"We are the only thing slowing their population down, either with our cars, which is the No. 1 cause of death for coyotes, or when we remove them through hunting or control programs. None of the diseases they're exposed to really impact them at all."
Finally, Gehrt emphasized that under typical circumstances coyotes are not prone to attack humans.
"For those people who see a coyote and do feel threatened, waving one's arms and yelling, or even throwing a rock in its direction, will very likely scare the animal away... You're doing them a favor. They show a healthy respect and fear of people and that's the way it should be," he added.