For the first time in history, the majority of humans lives in urbanized areas; more than three billion people reside in cities and suburbs around the world. As we’re moving into town, wild canids — wolves and coyotes, foxes and jackals — are right behind us. Or we’re behind them, sometimes claiming turf they’d already staked out.
In Moscow, feral dogs ride the subways, while halfway around the globe in Madison, Wisconsin, red foxes tunnel under garage floors to dig dens. Red foxes in Fairfax, Virginia, go them one better, stealing newspapers from suburban front porches, perhaps to line their domiciles, or, as one homeowner quipped, to read up on prime real estate in the neighborhood.
Urban canids may provide endless “can you believe?” tales, but they’re also the subjects of growing scientific interest, so much so that researchers have coined a term for these city- and suburb-dwelling carnivores: synanthropes.
Life in the big city
Synanthropes demonstrate how quickly wild species can adapt to the pressures of living in unnatural habitats, says wildlife biologist David Drake, director of the Urban Canid Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Beyond adapting, synanthropes are evolving. Some researchers believe that urban areas are accelerating evolution. Changes that would usually take centuries are happening in decades. For example, urban red foxes in Israel have higher survival rates and smaller home ranges than their country cousins.
In fact, our presence may have shortened the distance canids and other mammals roam by two-thirds, according to one study. In areas with large human “footprints” – places we’ve heavily influenced — the mammals’ maximum range averaged about 4.3 miles. In low-footprint areas, it was 13.7 miles.
Some species fare better than others in our shadow. Medium-sized canids such as coyotes and red foxes, also called mesopredators, are often “urban adapters.” Much of their success stems from their diets; they’re far from picky eaters. They trot along carrying everything from discarded fast-food wrappers to fisheries by-catch that washes ashore. The elimination of large predators, such as wolves, from cities has provided urban adapters with abundant food sources and given them free rein.
When populations of apex predators like wolves decrease, mesopredators such as red foxes and coyotes often increase.
“Europe is currently experiencing a dramatic expansion of a new mesopredator, the golden jackal, across the continent,” says ecologist Miha Krofel of the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. The golden jackal is a native European species. For millennia, however, its range was confined to Europe’s southern fringes. Now it’s increasingly colonizing new areas, with reports of its arrival in the Netherlands, Denmark and Estonia.
The likely reason: wolves. Or more precisely, says Krofel, the lack of them. Gray wolves once were – and in many places, still are – persecuted by humans. At one time, wolves existed throughout Eurasia, but little by little were driven into remote areas, opening the way for species like golden jackals.
Wolves once again at the door
The situation may be changing again. Protection of gray wolves is increasing their numbers in parts of Europe and North America. Wolves frequent landfills in Israel, Italy, Romania and Canada. In Canada, they follow dump trucks carrying trash, timing their appearances to that of the trucks.
In France, wolves were eradicated by the 1930s; now they’re creeping back. Today some 360 are in the country. The French government has announced a plan to allow 500 wolves nationwide by 2023. Farmers can apply for funding to protect sheep and other livestock wolves might hunt, but compensation is contingent on measures like electric fences being installed.
“Biologically, wolves can and will live almost anyplace people will tolerate them, and that will vary with local culture and politics,” writes David Mech of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center and the University of Minnesota in a 2017 paper in the journal Biological Conservation.
Mech wasn’t expecting wolves to stake out territory almost in the backyard of his University of Minnesota-Twin Cities office. But that’s exactly what happened.
In the spring of 2015, gray wolves showed up near Isanti, Minnesota, 45 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. According to Mech, it’s the farthest south in the state a pack has been seen in recent history. The wolves have thrived on the area’s abundant deer.
Isanti resident Larry Hogie digs soil from ponds on his property, which he forms into mounds of dirt for sale to gardeners and horticulture centers. One day Hogie glanced at the edge of woods near his home…and a gray wolf looked back. Since then, he’s spotted wolves four or five times. “But I don’t think many of the wolves are around any longer,” Hogie says.
Mech believes there may be one or two left. He and University of Minnesota colleagues hope to study them. “We’d like to find out if wolves could exist on a long-term basis so close to the Twin Cities,” he says. Adds Hogie, “For that to happen, we need to learn how to live in peace with predators.”
Tracks in the snow
The residents of Slettas, Norway, are trying to do just that, says biologist Barbara Zimmerman of the Scandinavian Wolf Research Project.
Since 2011, a wolf pack has shared its territory with Slettas villagers, sometimes passing by their houses. Zimmerman and colleagues discovered that the wolves give wide berth to homes during the daytime, but come closer at night — at certain times of the year. The reason? The wolves’ moose prey. In winter months when snow piles up, moose find vegetation to nibble on in open areas around houses.
“In March when the snow is at its deepest, the wolves spend one-third of their time near houses, despite the fact that this zone makes up only 18 percent of their overall territory,” says Zimmerman. “Eighty-six percent of moose killed by the wolves during one month, March, have been within 500 meters [550 yards] of houses, compared to zero to 40 percent the rest of the year.”
Knowing that it’s not people per se, but the movements of moose that are bringing in wolves “may help villagers coexist with them,” says Zimmerman. “This pack has been there a long time, and its leaders are elderly now. The female is 11 years old, and the male, 8 years old,” the equivalents of human grandparents.
The Slettas pack, however, is on a Norwegian hit list of wolves to be shot in early 2019. “Norway has set a limit on how many wolves are allowed in the country at one time,” Zimmerman says. “By this standard, there are now ‘too many’ wolves, and the Slettas pack is scheduled to be taken out.” But when a pack is removed from its territory, new wolves almost immediately move in, Zimmerman and other scientists found.
The Slettas villagers have become tolerant of the wolves, believes Zimmerman. “Otherwise,” she says, “they would have done something about them long ago.”
Torbjorn Lange, deputy director general of the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment’s Section for the Management of Species, says that “a final decision has not yet been made as regards the future of the Slettas pack. The regional authorities decided that the pack should be culled. The decision has, however, been appealed by numerous organizations.”
The final order, Lange says, will be given by his agency, the Ministry of Climate and Environment. “It is expected that the decision will be ready in advance of the hunting period that starts on the 1st of January,” he says.
Is there a way out? Humans and predators can successfully share the landscape, researchers maintain. In areas where wolves and other carnivores might prey on livestock, for example, attempts to reduce the threat, such as installing electric fences and enlisting the help of livestock-guarding dogs, can facilitate a cease-fire. In the case of the Slettas pack, “villagers rarely if ever see the wolves,” says Zimmerman. “The only marks of their passage are tracks in the snow.”
Symbiotic urban canids?
Can there be symbiotic canids? Yes, say some biologists.
Waste management is a challenge around the world, including in Europe. Dusko Cirovic of the University of Belgrade and colleagues discovered a solution almost in front of their eyes: wild canids in the neighborhood. As they reported in a 2016 paper in Biological Conservation, golden jackals are serving as unpaid trash collectors.
The researchers estimate that in Serbia alone, golden jackals annually cart off more than 3,700 tons of animal waste and 13.2 million rodents that are crop pests. The biologists found that the monetary value of the jackals’ waste removal is greater than half a million euros per year.
The results, says Cirovic, “show that these carnivores are of great value to human communities.”
Can we coexist with wolves and their kin? We already are.
Portions of this article appeared in International Wolf magazine.