Raccoons riding a possibly uneasy population high
(Reprinted from above link)
Original Title: No 'coon swoon yet Raccoons riding a possibly uneasy population high
Speaking of masked mammals, it's difficult to mask the probability that we have an excessive population of raccoons nowadays.
Back in what millennials would consider ancient times, about 1970, there just weren't oodles and gobs of raccoons. They were out there, certainly, but 'coons at that time were country critters of modest proliferation.
Lawn raccoons weren't prevalent at the time. And where raccoons did live and do business, there were 'coon hunters and trappers that held numbers in check.
In the half century between then and now, a couple of things have happened to change the world of these ring-tailed rapscallions. One, fur prices essentially collapsed and societal values and interests changed to drastically lower the harvest of raccoons. And, two, raccoons learned that there was a good life to be had living among these humans that used to hunt and trap them.
It started with economics. The sale of raccoon pelts used to be a pretty fair incentive to trap and/or hunt the game species. Back in the '70s, a trapper might get $27 or $28 for a 'coon pelt -- and that was not an insignificant sum in 1970s dollars.
Since then, changes in fashions and buying trends in the European market and, especially, Russia abandoned much of the fur trade. Prices for most furs tumbled. Raccoons, a staple in the fur market of days past, were predicted to be selling for $5-15 on this year's market.
Raccoons are still hunted by a set of outdoors enthusiasts, but these specialists are mostly in it as a dog sport, taking reward from hounds trailing and treeing 'coons. There's not all that many 'coon hunters, and some of them often don't harvest the raccoons that their dogs tree.
The number of trappers has fallen off to a relative trace. The seasons and opportunities are there, but it's a laborious pursuit that now has little financial return. Atop this, anti-fur sentiments sometimes give trappers a social beating.
A dramatic reduction in raccoon harvest has been a springboard to generally larger populations. Raccoons can have a fair lifespan, and with more surviving critters breeding -- and females producing litters of four or five youngsters annually, numbers snowball in time.
With the population growing out in the sticks, meanwhile, raccoons living on the periphery of mankind looked at this lifestyle and discovered it had much to offer for coonkind. Spreading human housing and development provided lots of feeding and shelter opportunities, raccoons found.
In many instances, 'coons discovered they could make a better living scrounging for food on the coattails of man. They could do it with less work and while risking less predation than that to which they would be subject in wilder areas. Sleeping in a hollow tree and eating crayfish is a good living, but sheltering in a storm drain and raiding garbage cans and pet food bowls on the porch might come easier.
With raccoons thriving out in farm country, in the woods and bottomlands, while prospering meanwhile in the suburban and even urban settings, their numbers have clearly blossomed over the past few decades.
There's no scientific gauge for it, but the most obvious anecdotal indicator might be our highways. Wherever critters get squashed by passing vehicles, look at the species mix among the crossing victims. Nowadays, raccoons are routine and frequent among the roadkills. There was a time when you didn't see many 'coons among that toll.
Raccoons have been job creators among nuisance animal trappers. Their increased presence in the suburbs keep pest control folks much busier now.
More raccoons would seem to be a good thing. In my thinking, at least, more wildlife is usually a positive thing. In this case, however, we may be dealing with excess. Biologists long have warned that dense raccoon population can be a precursor for a major outbreak of canine distemper, a disease that can affect (and decimate) several species, including raccoons.
As long as 'coons have been extra-plentiful now, I'm frankly surprised that we haven't seen a distemper epidemic come along and level the playing field.
There's always some give and take, too, when one species shows a population expansion. Other species may suffer as nature balances things.
One repercussion to the raccoon boom is an added stroke against our wild turkey population. Kentucky's turkey population is down somewhat in the past few years, the result of lower nesting success, hens successfully raising fewer poults.
One of the top reasons for reduced turkey production is raccoon predation on the ground-level nests. Biological study has shown that raccoons are the most damaging predator on turkey nests, 'coons relishing the opportunity to eat both unhatched eggs and vulnerable young poults.
The more raccoons out there, the harder it is for a hen turkey to hatch and raise a brood of young ones to the point that they can escape that source of tooth and claw.
It should be interesting to see how nature along with influences from humans work out the raccoon's share of the balance in years to come. Some species gain, some lose and others just hang in there. Raccoons may be at the top of their game right now.
In another 50 years, 'coons once more may be scarce. Or then again, they may be in charge here.