The Predator Boom

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Better management practices and smarter hunting regulations have allowed predator species around the country to rebound from dangerously low numbers in the 1900s. Most outdoorsmen and women, consider this great news. For some, these predators are challenging game species to chase through the backcountry. For others, they serve as a welcome reminder that we are not always the top dog on the food chain. But there has also been a considerable amount of collateral damage in this recent predator boom. Some predator species have quickly repopulated regions unchecked. Elk, deer and moose herds have suffered and hunters have grown frustrated waiting for game agencies to untangle the red tape. Also, as suburbia expands, the number of predator and human conflicts has slowly increased. Take a look at which predator populations are growing the fastest. Photo: Chris Muiden
Coyotes Coyote populations are climbing around the country, but by how much nobody really knows. Coyotes were originally a western and plains predator, but they have been moving east for decades. Many wildlife experts believe these new eastern coyotes, which grow much larger than their western brothers, are a hybrid mix between timber wolves and western coyotes.
The Eastern invasion happened so quickly that many state fish and game agencies are still scrambling to put coyote populations in check. Several states, like Pennsylvania, don't even have solid estimates on local coyote populations.
Coyote hunting continues to be a popular pursuit for outdoorsmen, and liberal bag limits and longs seasons have helped grow the sport. Hunters and farmers shoot more than 400,000 coyotes each year, but the coyote population keeps on growing.
In both the east and west, coyotes have taken to the suburbs, snatching up pets and even attacking people. In the most extreme case, coyotes attacked and a killed Canadian singer Taylor Mitchell, while she was hiking in a park in Nova Scotia in 2009. Photo: Rebecca Richardson
The suburban coyote problem has gotten so bad that some cities are hiring professional trappers to kill coyotes. One suburb outside of Denver pays its coyote assassin $65 per hour.
Everyone agrees that coyotes eat deer, but just how many deer is up for debate. Some argue that coyotes don't really have a large impact on deer herds, but one formal study conducted by the Montana Fish and Game Department found that in a given study area, coyotes were responsible for at least 90 percent of mule deer fawn mortality. In common man's terms, this means that out of every 100 fawns that die each spring, 90 are killed by coyotes.
And coyotes don't just eat fawns either, this is especially true of the big eastern dogs. During a 12-year study conducted in Maine, biologists examined the teeth and bones of deer killed by coyotes. They found that the large eastern coyotes do not target just young and sick deer, but they also take down mature and healthy does and bucks on a regular basis.
Black Bears
Black bears are making a comeback in a big way. They use to be among the most common big game in Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Virginia before they were almost wiped out of the states in the early 1900s. But thanks to some strong management policies, black bears are again flourishing. Bear populations have grown so quickly that many states don't even know how many bears they have. Photo: Janebelindasmith
With the increase in bear population, bear hunts have also increased. New black bear hunts recently reopened in New Jersey and Kentucky, and game officials are looking to increase the bear harvest by up to 80 percent in New Mexico. Photo: rjones0856
More black bear hunting opportunities have been welcomed with open arms by outdoorsmen. In Wisconsin 100,000 hunters applied for bear tags this year. The state's bear population has grown to between 26,000 and 40,000 bears and the state issued 8,910 permits this year.
More bear hunting is great, but on the flipside, bears eat deer. While bears mostly eat, berries, grasses, roots and insects, one research study found that black bears can kill up to 22 percent of newborn fawns. This was under perfect predation conditions, which means there was poor habitat for fawns to hide in and deer densities were. In most cases, the percentage of fawns killed by bears is much lower than this.
Researchers in Minnesota followed five different black bears for one year and found that fawn whitetails make up about 5 percent of a bear's diet in that region. Photo: HBarrison
Mountain Lions
There are an estimated 50,000 mountain lions in North America and that number is on a declining trend. But in the United States the mountain lion has made a steady comeback and is slowly finding its way back east. In the last few years, lions have been spotted in Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin and Maine. Photo: Art G.
With lions migrating to different regions of the country and development continuing to encroach on their habitat, conflicts between humans and lions have begun to increase.
In 2008 a young male mountain lion was shot by police on the north side of Chicago. Scientists believe the lion had made his way down from the Black Hills in North Dakota. Photo: Benajamint444
Most recently, a mountain lion wandered into Berkeley, California where it was killed by police. The lion population in California is between 4,000 and 6,000 animals, but there is no lion hunting in the state since voters banned it in the 1990s. California has the most human to mountain lion conflicts out of any state. Photo: Neil McIntosh
Most experts say that mountain lions are too spread out and too scarce to have severe impacts on game populations at a regional level, but at a local level, they can do some damage. A research study conducted by the California Department of Fish and Game found that lions accounted for 49 percent of fawn deaths in the given research area. Fawn survival in that area averaged out to 38 percent. Photo: Vince Maidens
The gray wolf has been one of the most controversial animals in North America. Shot and poisoned almost to extinction in the West during the 1900s, wolves have since been reintroduced and populations have flourished in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Even larger populations exist in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Photo: National Park service
There are more than 1,700 gray wolves in the west and in most regions, wolf populations exceed the goals set by fish and game officials. But because of a recent federal lawsuit brought on by environmentalist groups, wolves were put back on the endangered species list and are no longer allowed to be hunted. Photo: National Park Service
Hunters and wildlife officials have seen sharp decreases in moose, elk and deer populations in the West. There is special concern in the Lolo elk zone in northern Idaho where wolves devastated once healthy elk herds. Game officials were hoping that hunters would kill 80 wolves in the area, but since the hunt was cancelled, it will now most likely be up to game officials to trap and kill those wolves. Photo: National Park Service
In the Great Lakes Region, deer hunters say that wolves are mowing down deer herds. Research done in Wisconsin found that a wolf pack of four wolves on a 70-square mile territory would kill about 72 deer each year or about 1 deer per square mile. Photo: National Park Service
This is a relatively low number compared to winterkills and hunter harvest numbers. But as wolf populations multiply in the Great Lakes region, so does the number of deer killed by wolves. There is also concern in northern Minnesota, where moose populations are mysteriously declining. Some experts blame wolves. Photo: Michigan Tech University
The wolf population in Wisconsin jumped by about 26 percent in just one year. It spiked from about 540 wolves in 2008 to about 680 wolves in 2009. The population increased significantly again this year to about 740 wolves.
There are now about 3,00 wolves in Minnesota and more than 520 wolves in Michigan, but some hunters suspect that the numbers are significantly higher than these estimates.
Grizzly bears once ruled the American West and much of the Great Plains. But as European settlement spread across the country, grizzlies were pushed out of most of their home ranges, and the problems worsened with market hunting and urban development into the 1900s.
In 1922 there were 37 different grizzly bear populations in the country. By 1975, 31 of those populations were destroyed. Before European settlement, there were an estimated 50,000 grizzlies in the lower 48 and that number was eventually whittled to just hundreds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
But grizzlies didn't become the top predator on the continent by accident. Grizzly populations remained stable in parts of Canada and Alaska, and recently grizzlies began making a comeback in the lower 48. Thanks to the bears' resourcefulness and some strong management practices, there are now about 1,400 grizzlies in the lower 48 states.
Last year the Greater Yellowstone population of grizzly bears were removed from the Endangered Species List and reclassified as threatened. This specific bear population has increased from about 136 individuals in 1975 to more than 500 animals in 2006. Photo: diliff
The Yellowstone population has been increasing by between 4 percent and 7 percent annually. The range of the occupied bear habitat has increased by 48 percent since the 1970s, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo: National Park Service
Feral hogs
Are feral hogs really predators, not exactly, they're really opportunists. While hogs are mostly herbivores, they regularly eat whitetail fawns and turkey eggs in the spring. There is little solid research that describes just how many fawns are eaten by hogs each year. Photo: vlod007
The real damage hogs cause is to forage. They outcompete deer and other wildlife and destroy natural habitat. And they're spreading like the plague. There is plenty of documentation on the incredible increase of the wild hog population. Unlike the other predators in this gallery, game officials have been trying to decrease hog numbers through unlimited hunting opportunities. But not even hunters can keep the hogs in check as they continue to spread their range throughout the United States. Photo: Craig O'neal
Which of these predators, if left unchecked, do you think is the biggest threat to game populations? Comment below. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife