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How Do We Best Coexist with Apex Predators?

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Mountain lion (USFS)

This post is part of KQED’s Do Now U project. Do Now U is a biweekly activity for students and the public to engage and respond to current issues using social media. Do Now U aims to build civic engagement and digital literacy for learners of all ages. This post was developed by Claire Huebler, Bri Pero, Sara Sandfort and Julia Zamora, students in Steve Bachofer’s “Urban Environmental Issues” class at Saint Mary’s College of California.

Featured Media Resource

Mountain Lion of Hollywood
Learn about P-22, Los Angeles’s urban mountain lion, and the journey he took to get to the largest urban park in the United States.

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How can we best coexist with apex predators? Will we be successful in providing enough space and resources for them long-term?  #DoNowUPredators

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Learn More About Apex Predators

Headlines abound when a mountain lion ventures into an urban or suburban community. Most people are not thrilled to have a mountain lion, wolf or other large predator in their backyard. Communities may push to eliminate these predators in order to reduce risk to humans, pets, ranchers and livestock. But these apex predators—animals at the top of the food chain—can also be keystone species, species that hold an entire ecosystem together. Protecting and preserving apex predators takes a lot of time, effort and money. How important is it to put resources towards ensuring that they remain part of our ecosystems?


Bears, mountain lions, wolves and other predators are often depicted in media and the news as dangerous or scary creatures. Bears are known to cause issues in areas of national parks that people visit. They enter campsites, steal food, destroy cars and sometimes–though rarely–attack humans. Mountain lions can prey on pets and livestock left exposed and vulnerable at night. Wolves are controversial because of their relationship with ranchers and livestock. Wolves attack livestock, and although wolf attacks on humans are very rare, this doesn’t stop people from fearing them. However, even though predators can be dangerous, they are essential to ecosystems and many people want to protect them.

Adult black bear with two cubs
Adult black bear with two cubs (Neal Herbert / NPS)

Bears play an important role in forests by dispersing the seeds of the plants they eat. They also eat large amounts of insects. In order to try to limit interactions between bears and humans in Yosemite National Park, the park has implemented an aggressive management strategy. Rangers use paintball guns loaded with mineral oil paintballs to shoot at the bears, yelling and chasing them away from populated areas. Signs are posted in the park to educate visitors about bears, and videos in visitor centers explain to people how to keep themselves safe.

Mountain lions play a major role in our ecosystem by keeping the population of animals such as deer and rabbits in check, which helps prevent the overgrazing of vegetation. Currently, mountain lions with home ranges in urban areas can become isolated in due to freeways and other development. Though very expensive, setting up animal crossings over urban highways for mountain lions would not only prevent collisions with cars on freeways (as the animals are trying to cross), but would also allow them access to larger areas to find prey, and to breed with other mountain lions, preventing inbreeding.

Gray wolf
Gray wolf (Gary Kramer / USFWS)

They grey wolf is a keystone species that controls elk and deer populations, which improves the overall health of the herds and protects areas from being overgrazed. This was extensively documented in Yellowstone National Park, when wolves were reintroduced to the park after having been absent for almost 70 years due to predator control programs. In contrast, at Point Reyes National Seashore, where there are no wolves to control the tule elk population that resides there, more extensive efforts have been required to manage the elk, including immunocontraception. In areas where there are wolf and livestock conflicts, some ranchers are trying nonlethal strategies to protect livestock, including guard dogs, movable fencing, lights and air horns.

Apex predators perform important ecosystem services naturally. However, as our cities and suburban areas continue to spread out into what were once wild lands, this means coexisting with humans and developing new management strategies. Do you think we can successfully coexist with apex predators? Will we give them enough space and resources?

More Resources

Article: NOVA Next
Coexisting with Carnivores—Why It’s Not a Zero-Sum Game
Predators all over the world face similar challenges as their habitat is destroyed and clashes with humans increase. Read about management strategies for lions and Kenya and mountain lions in California.

Audio: NPR
Montana Ranchers Learn Ways To Live With Wolves
Hear about techniques ranchers are using to coexist with gray wolves, and the diverse group of people working together to develop those solutions.

Article: Daily Tribune
Despite Sheep Kills, Farmer Not Anti-Wolf
Read about one farmer’s view on wolves.

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KQED Do Now U is a biweekly activity in collaboration with SENCER. SENCER is a community of transformation that consists of educators and administrators in the higher and informal education sectors. SENCER aims to create an intelligent, educated, and empowered citizenry through advancing knowledge in the STEM fields and beyond. SENCER courses show students the direct connections between subject content and the real world issues they care about, and invite students to use these connections to solve today’s most pressing problems.

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