Third of three articles on wildlife trends in America
With the incessant warnings of vanishing wildlife, it just might surprise you to learn that many animals in the U.S. are doing quite well.
The population and range of most dramatically shrank by the beginning of the 20th century. We had converted forests to fields and fueled our economy and built our homes, buildings, fences, train trestles, and transportation (wagons, boats, ships, boxcars, and even early cars) from wood.
It was a time before basic laws prohibiting things like dumping raw sewage and cruder agricultural practices generated the Dust Bowl. Some of these animals were an important food source, while there was little if any management of hunting, trapping, and fishing.
Perhaps most importantly, many were considered serious threats to crops, livestock, desired wildlife, and people, and were purposefully eradicated.
However, the past century has seen a dramatic turnaround on human pressure on American wildlife. Huge improvements in agricultural productivity radically increased the food produced per cultivated acre, and better forestry management and development of wildlife management led to unheralded improvements in wildlife populations.
The following is a list of nine such critters, some of which may surprise you:
1. The American antelope (pronghorn): Even the fastest animal in the Western Hemisphere (up to 60 mph), the pronghorn, had been reduced from many millions to as few as 12,000 by 1921. Management expanded its population by 80 times. Ranging from North Dakota to Washington, south to Arizona and back to West Texas, pronghorn are now generally estimated to number around 1,000,000. (You may have heard that antelope are federally endangered, but don’t panic. That applies only to one questionable subspecies in the southwestern-most corner of Arizona.)
2. Elk: Weighing as much as 800 pounds and standing 5 feet at the shoulder, elk—like their even bigger cousin, the moose—had been severely overharvested. Restoration efforts brought it back from perhaps 50,000 to around 1 million today with many states reintroducing the majestic beast. Elk have even increased enough that Virginia, where they had been absent for more than a century, has allowed a small hunt in 2021 for the first time. (Moose, by the way, increased as well.)
3. White-tailed deer: Even the ubiquitous white-tailed deer had been decimated by 1890, possibly numbering as few as 300,000. Today, there are perhaps 30 million or more. With those numbers, it’s clear there’s plenty of whitetail habitat.
4. Mountain lion (puma, cougar, panther, catamount): The mountain lion may have more common names than any other animal, and an extensive range to match—from Canada to Chile. Once subject to bounties and shot on sight, it eventually survived in the remotest areas of the West and parts of Florida. (More recent genetic analysis finds the Florida panther is not a separate subspecies).
The bounties were removed, and the number of the big cats, which were estimated to number around 10,000 in 1970, has likely doubled or even quadrupled, maybe more. Individual lions have been dispersing with 10 state agencies east of the Great Plains documenting mountain lion occurrences. There, lions will likely eventually find plenty of forests filled with their favorite prey, deer.
5. Coyote: The coyote was subject to a relentless eradication effort. It has thrived since not only occupying its 1880s Great Plains and Southwest range, but also spreading to 28 additional states. It has even been documented in New York City with the city’s wildlife web page advising, “So, if you cross paths with a coyote in New York City, respect them the same way you would any other New Yorker, and give them plenty of space. They just want the freedom to independently explore New York City, too.”
Despite the cheeky language, coyotes can be serious predators. In addition to a diet rich in deer, the Department of Agriculture reports that in 2015, coyotes killed more than 140,000 calves and cattle. (A wolf, its bigger cousin, somehow made it to New York state last year, possibly journeying from Canada or from the Minnesota-Michigan area.)
6. Bobcat: The reclusive bobcat was eliminated from much of its range. For example, it was largely extirpated from Ohio by 1850 and other Midwestern states by the early 1900s. It is now found in all connected states except Delaware (or so we think) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports a very healthy population of about 2.4 million to 3.6 million U.S. bobcats.
7. Black bear: The black bear had been extirpated from much of its former range but has rebounded and has reoccupied vast areas. A former New Jersey wildlife official whose dog was recently attacked by one says, “[T]hey’re everywhere now. Now they’re common.” Massachusetts officials put out a release in mid-October warning, “As the bear range expands eastward, many communities will begin seeing bears for the first time, and residents will need to learn important strategies to coexist with bears.”
There are more black bears today than all other species of bear in the world combined; at least 300,000 in the lower 48 and perhaps 100,000 to 200,000 more in Alaska.
8. River otter: Eliminated from 11 states and severely depleted in nine others, otters have rebounded following one of the most extensive carnivore reintroductions ever undertaken. Some 4,000 otters were introduced to 23 states and now occupy an area equal to 75% of their historical range. Based on a 2016 survey of river otter population trends, only two states were uncertain, while 25 and 22 states reported stable and increasing populations, respectively.
9. Beaver: Last but not least, nature’s greatest engineer, the beaver can cut down a 6-inch diameter tree in 15 minutes and may fell more than 200 trees in a single year. While not predators—except with respect to aspen trees—a single beaver colony can radically alter dozens of acres.
They flood forests, open forest canopies, and set in motion transitions from ponds, to marshes, then meadows, and then back again to forest. Millions of beavers are busy fashioning wetlands to their liking right now. So much so that they are now commonly considered nuisances.
Their population has exploded following years of pioneering reintroduction work to reestablish beaver from where they had vanished, eradicated from Ohio in 1830, South Carolina by the late 1800s, North Carolina by 1897, and numerous other places as a result of relentless trapping.
One of the earliest recruits to the restoration effort was a male beaver named Geronimo, who, after completing numerous test parachute drops, and with three female companions, was placed in a crate and parachuted into remote Idaho mountains. A mechanism opened the crate on impact. Geronimo and Co. shuffled out and successfully established a colony. The rest, as they say, is history.
These examples are far from the exception. The anxiety about disappearing wildlife and species on the verge of extinction in the U.S. isn’t supported by the data. The actual data on wildlife recovery is documented in a report from The Heritage Foundation that looks at some historical data for 140 animals.
There’s a lot of good news, and we should celebrate it.
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