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Are apex predators getting a taste for city life, too?

Patrik JonssonThe Christian Science Monitor

Americans have been moving from the country to the city for decades, so maybe it’s not surprising that researchers are finding a similar pattern among other North American apex predators.

New research suggests mountain lions and bears may be following the urban pioneering of raccoons, foxes and, most notably, coyotes as they slowly encroach on major US metro areas from New Jersey to California. In the case of coyotes, they don’t even mind the density, with some coyote packs now confining themselves to territories of a third of a square mile.

“The coyote is the test case for other animals,” Ohio State University biologist Stan Gehrt told EcoSummit 2012 conference on Friday in Columbus, Ohio. “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?”

The news comes as a growing number of young, non-truck-driving Americans have turned to hunting and fishing to augment their diet. Among them: Facebook founder and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who spent an entire year hunting and catching his own meat as part of a broader effort by a new breed of hunters to “pay the full karmic price,” as one hipster-turned-hunter put it in a recent book.

“They no longer wish to have an anonymous hit man between themselves and supper,” opines the New York Times’ Dwight Garner in a recent story. “They want to thoughtfully stare their protein in the face.”

That opportunity could be coming more frequently.

Last month, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance found that “wildlife-associated activities” – hunting, fishing, birdwatching – ticked up in 28 states since 2006, a reversal of a long-term trend. Whether encounters between humans and big predators are placid or violent, however, evidence suggests that clashes between humans and other predators will increase, and potentially intensify.

Though Gehrt says the jury is still out on whether other apex predators will continue to seek closer human contact, anecdotal evidence in support of that theory continues to build. A mountain lion was recently shot near downtown Santa Monica, Calif., and a family of black bears has been observed rambling around Cedar Grove, N.J., a major suburban area.

Coyotes, meanwhile, have become commonplace in and around many cities, including Chicago, where Gehrt has followed coyote packs since 2000. Among many startling findings, Gehrt reported last month that urban coyote couples are 100 percent monogamous, even though there seems to be plenty of opportunity to choose other mates.

“They’re finding everything they need right there, in the suburbs of Chicago,” says Gehrt.

As in the case of wolves, Americans have in the past eradicated almost entire populations of apex predators in order to feel safe. Last month, the US Interior Department lifted the endangered status of Wyoming wolves after the creatures made a remarkable comeback in that rural western state. In part, that new designation means that ranchers on private lands will be able to shoot wolves they find near their cattle.

But Gehrt has found that, at least in the case of urban coyotes, eradication efforts have at times faltered, partially because of backlash from a suburban public squeamish about killing wild animals as well as a pattern where new coyotes tend to quickly move into territories from which other animals have been evicted.