Nineteenth-century Americans did not willingly suffer competing predators, and federal eradication programs nearly wiped out every single wolf and big cat and many of the bears in the continental US. Almost all share the same story of abundance, precipitous loss and, today, partial recovery.
Grizzly, or brown, bears are one of North America’s largest land mammals. Male grizzlies can stand 7ft tall, weigh up to 600lb and consider 500 sq miles home. At one time, perhaps 100,000 roamed the West, but by 1975 fewer than 300 remained. Successful conservation efforts, particularly in the Greater Yellowstone Region, have increased the population in the lower 48 states to around 1200. By contrast, Alaska remains chock-full of grizzlies, with upwards of 30, 000.
Despite declines, black bears still reside nearly everywhere. Smaller than grizzlies, these opportunistic, adaptable animals can survive in very small home ranges. Black bears enjoy an almost mythical status in America because of their intelligent, congenial personality. Indeed, they can become so comfortable with humans that national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone have a constant problem with black bears poaching campsites and cars for food. Be mindful whenever you’re in bear country.
Another extremely adaptable creature is the coyote, which looks similar to a wolf but is about half the size, ranging from 20lb to 50lb. An icon of the Southwest, coyotes are found all over, sometimes even in cities.
America has one primary big-cat species, which goes by several names: mountain lion, cougar, puma and panther. In the east, a remnant population of Florida panthers is nurtured in Everglades National Park. In the west, mountain lions are common enough that human encounters have begun occurring. These powerful cats are around 125lb of pure muscle, with short tawny fur, long tails and a secretive nature.
When it comes to wildlife slaughter, nothing can match what happened to the buffalo, or bison. No accurate count can ever be made, but they may have originally numbered as many as 65 million, in herds so thick they ‘darkened the whole plains, ’ as Lewis and Clark wrote. They were killed for food, hides, sport, cash and to impoverish Native Americans, who depended on them. By the 20th century, a couple hundred remained. From these, new herds have been built up, so that one of America’s quintessential animals can again be admired in its gruff majesty – among other places, in Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Badlands National Parks.