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Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Misunderstood Coyote
Written by Jayne Winters   
Wednesday, 09 February 2011

coyoteCoyotes have lived in North America for centuries - years before European settlers arrived. Native American cultures view them as powerful mythical figures, venerated for their intelligence and mischievous nature; Navajo herders call them "God’s dog." 

Yet today, reports indicate that coyotes are the most persecuted native carnivore in the US and generally considered not only a nuisance, but a threat to livestock/domestic pets and a serious competitor for game species.

Despite decades of our extermination efforts (trapping, shooting, snaring, poisoning), coyotes have expanded their range threefold since the mid 1800’s, largely as a result of our extensive forest clearing and eradication of wolves and cougars, which has left a significant void in the predator/prey hierarchy.

There are over a dozen subspecies of coyotes, found from California to Newfoundland. They utilize a wide range of habitat from grasslands to deserts to forests and more recently, urban parks and neighborhoods. In all locations, they play a vital role in maintaining healthy ecosystems and species diversity.

By ‘regulating’ smaller predators like foxes, raccoons, skunks, badgers, and opossums through competition and direct killing, they have a significant positive impact on rodent control and water fowl/ songbird populations. Coyotes are opportunistic; they have a superb adaptability to environmental changes and survive based on available food sources. While a wide variety of mammals, insects, vegetables, and fruit are on the menu, rodents are their main food source.

Surprisingly, coyotes are not considered a disease threat. Rabies outbreaks are rare and in fact, coyotes often serve as a buffer of the disease by reducing fox, raccoon and skunk, which are more often infected with the virus. In addition, they could consume enough mice, which carry deer ticks, to reduce Lyme disease, now at epidemic proportions in New England.

People often don’t take into consideration that the appeal of moving out of the city into ‘wild land’ includes living with ‘wild life.’ Simply killing coyotes does not resolve the problem; in fact, the result is typically counterproductive as the birth rate can increase from 3-4 pups/year per female to 7-16 pups. Additionally, eliminating individuals from healthy, established packs often opens the area to wandering dysfunctional coyotes.

Coyotes typically keep a low profile; they travel and forage at dawn and dusk/evening to avoid human activity. Stable, healthy coyote families are wary of humans. It’s the wandering, unhealthy or starving coyote that is more likely to seek out unprotected pets/farm animals. Once they make the connection of humans with food and easy pickings, coyotes minimize and/or abandon their hunting territories, which results in more coming into the area, increasing the population and the establishment of new packs.

Irresponsible human behavior is most often the root cause of wildlife conflicts. There are many simple ways we can eliminate or reduce coyote interactions:

- Keep cats & small pets indoors; bring small dogs in at night, especially in areas of coyote sightings
- Walk dogs on a leash, especially during spring when adult coyotes are territorial & protective of their young
- Don’t feed pets outside or leave food bowls outside
- Secure garbage cans by fastening lids with rope or bungee cords. Place bins inside a shed, garage or other enclosed area. Do not leave dumpsters uncovered/unsecured.
- Put garbage out the morning of pick up, not the night before
- Eliminate artificial water sources, such as koi ponds
- Clear brush & dense weeds to reduce hiding/den opportunities
- Close off crawl spaces under porches, decks, sheds
- Spay/neuter dogs as unspayed females may attract male coyotes & male dogs may roam with female coyotes
- Don’t overflow bird feeders (coyotes are attracted to seed and rodents)

For gardens:

- Use enclosed bins for composting rather than exposed piles; avoid adding dog or cat waste, meat, milk & egg products
- Pick ripe or older fruit off the ground
- Use heavy wire mesh fencing up to 6’ tall around gardens, with the bottom extending 6” below ground and outward  

For livestock owners:

- Use multi-species stocking (i.e., sheep and cattle together)
- Protect livestock in predator proof enclosures, especially at night
- Utilize guard dogs, donkeys, or llamas
- Confine ewes & cows during lambing/calving & at night
- Provide rabbit wire covered enclosures with fencing buried below ground; rabbit cages are not recommended as they may be attacked through the cage or die of shock as they frantically seek cover. They need an escape shelter, just small enough for the rabbit to enter.
- Use electric fencing & scare tactics/frightening devices, such as electronics which emit high bursts of sound or motion sensor lighting
- Develop composting or chemical means to dispose of livestock & wildlife carcasses
- Install motion activated sprinkler systems or coyote rollers along perimeter fencing.

There are 70 million feral cats nationwide. Although the desire to assist them by setting up multiple feeding stations is well intended, this type of food subsidy attracts other animals, including coyotes. If you feed feral cats, do so in the day time only and on 6’ ledges, which are too high for coyotes to reach.

Coyote attacks are rare; there have been only 142 reported in the last 40 years. Ninety-nine percent of encounters with coyotes are non-confrontational. When conflicts do arise, they are almost always associated with animals that have been fed. If a coyote stares at or follows you, it has probably had human contact and thinks you’ll feed him. Although there are no documented reports of coyote attacks in Maine, keep in mind the following:

- A coyote’s normal behavior is wary; it will try to identify you & usually runs off.
- If it appears aggressive, treat it like you would an aggressive dog: don’t turn your back or run, stand your ground, shout at it. Act big & mean, wave your arms & make loud noises. If these actions fail, throw clods of earth or sticks near the ground, then the body, but never at the animal’s head
- Keep yourself between coyotes & small children or companion animals
- Walk trails with an air horn, whistle, walking stick or cane

Coyotes are here to stay. As we continue to expand into wildlife habitat and coyote populations adapt to our increasing presence, encounters will occur. It is up to us to reduce, if not eliminate, negative interactions by educating communities about humane techniques for co-existence. The goal of this education is to foster understanding and appreciation of the role the coyote plays in healthy ecosystems and the need to keep them wild. Remember: feeding wildlife at the back door has its consequences.

Resources for this article: Animal Protection Institute, The Eastern Coyote: The Story of Its Success by Gerry Parker, & Tom Horton (BOSTON GLOBE, May 2010)

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