People who live in the country have certainly seen more coyotes in recent years. Some nights, with all the howling, one might wonder if they are becoming overpopulated. And if they are, and they become desperate for food, might we see something like a zombie apocalypse, only with four-footed furry things?
Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Jeff Westerfield, assistant wildlife management supervisor for the District 3 Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife office in Akron. He specializes in conflict biology, as in resolving spats between wildlife species and between wildlife and humans.
In the latter case, that usually means figuring out what to do with a coyote that may have become a nuisance. But those cases are rare, Westerfield said.
“Coyotes in general keep to themselves,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of impact on other species, although you could have localized issues.”
For instance, one may nab a turkey and develop a taste for dark meat, but their main diet is small rodents. They do impact populations of those species, Westerfield said. Which may not be a bad thing.
At Purdue University in Indiana, scientists are studying voles and their impact on agriculture. Voles are small rodents that can do significant damage to grain crops as well as landscaping, fruit trees and lawns. Though they haven’t come up with specific numbers, the scientists — and farmers — are seeing less crop damage. The theory is that coyotes may be keeping the vole population down.
For the most part, coyotes don’t target bigger species for food, and in general, they live harmoniously with other species, with the possible exception of fox, which they see as competitors.
They may kill them for that reason, or at least boot them out of their territory. And that’s what all the howling is about: strengthening social bonds and reinforcing territorial boundaries, which in the case of coyotes are clearly marked. You don’t want to know how.
As for coyotes becoming overpopulated, that’s simply not the case. Westerfield describes their population in two words: “saturated” and “stabilized.”
Coyotes are not native to Ohio, but by the mid- to late-1970s, they could be found throughout the state. Between about 2005 and 2010, their population grew to the point of saturation, meaning there were as many coyotes as the land could support, he said.
Coyotes are predators at the top of the food chain. When their numbers reach the saturation point, the population levels off. That’s as opposed to deer, which can overpopulate in areas that can’t support them, as seen in many cities and suburbs.
The coyote population being saturated and stable “doesn’t mean you won’t see increased activity,” Westerfield said. “But increased activity doesn’t equate to increased population.”
In rare cases, coyotes might attack livestock, but it is usually the newborn variety — lambs or calves, for instance. Or they might pick on poultry, like chickens or turkeys.
Can’t kill them all
It’s pretty much open season on coyotes; you can trap or hunt them all year in Ohio, the only exception is deer gun season. And you can kill as many as you want, on any given day.
If you’re sure that livestock is being lost to coyote rather than other species, like raccoon, resist the urge “to go out and kill every coyote you see,” Westerfield said. Instead, try to get the culprit — it’s likely just one.
“If it’s coming into a pasture, watch where it’s getting in and set a snare there, or focus all your hunting efforts on that spot,” he said. That’s because if you kill a bunch of coyotes, others will move into that territory. And the newcomers may be even more of a nuisance than the first residents.
“The big take-home is that coyotes aren’t something to get rid of,” Westerfield said. And getting rid of them is not humanly possible.
Humans have tried, to no avail.
In fact, their efforts backfired, big time, according to Dr. Stanley D. Gehrt, an expert on the subject of coyotes — which he pronounces KIE-oats, leaving out the third syllable.
As a professor of wildlife ecology for The Ohio State University, Gehrt has been studying coyotes in the Chicago area for the past 20 years. Not only has he done much of the research, but he is the official spokesperson for the Urban Coyote Research Project.
That’s what brought him to the city of Ottawa in February, even though a Canadian customs agent doubted his reason for coming into the country because “he didn’t believe anyone in the city of Ottawa would want to hear about (coyotes),” Gehrt said.
Folks in Ottawa did attend his talk titled Urban Coyote Ecology. It was also recorded and has gotten more than 2,300 views on Youtube.
“It is a controversial animal,” he said of the coyote. “Some people love them, but a lot of people don’t.”
In his talk, he explained that the coyote is a “uniquely North American species.” Before European colonization, they lived mostly in what is now Mexico and the western United States. In the last 50 or 60 years, however, they have expanded north to Alaska, south to Florida and east to Nova Scotia.
“They’re everywhere from the Arctic Circle down,” he said. And they may be expanding to a second continent. “They just crossed the Panama Canal, so there’s a whole new continent waiting for coyotes to come in. That’ll be interesting,” Gehrt said.
Their expansion in the past five or six decades coincided with a huge effort at predator control that included killing coyotes in huge numbers. Yet while wolves, cougars and other predators were driven almost to the point of extinction, coyotes’ numbers increased. And they are still being killed in huge numbers, especially in the United States.
The USDA’s Wildlife Services kills approximately 80,000 coyotes a year, mostly to protect livestock. Another 300,000 a year are harvested legally for their pelts. Those numbers don’t include the animals that are not “turned in” or reported, including nuisance removal or private predator control.
“So a conservative estimate is that 500,000 to 800,000 coyotes a year are killed by people,” Gehrt said. “This has been going on for decades, and they handle it just fine. They don’t need any protection,” he said.
There’s an important lesson here, Gehrt told the audience. Even if we try, we can’t get rid of them. Or even make a dent in their population.
How are they so persecuted, yet so prolific? One, they’re the perfect size. Male coyotes in Chicago average 30 pounds, but they can get to the mid-40s and even close to 50 pounds, Gehrt said.
“If they were smaller, they’d have to live off rodents exclusively,” he said. But because they are a little bigger — and extremely skilled hunters — they can go after large prey if that’s what is available.
In Nova Scotia, where Gehrt and his colleagues are doing a study, coyotes feed on grey seals that weigh about 400 pounds and moose that weigh in at about 900 pounds.
“And this is only two or three individuals bringing down these animals; they don’t hunt in packs, like wolves,” he said. “They use techniques, which I won’t go into.”
Two, coyotes are monogamous and have extensive family support when it comes to raising pups. Usually, when geneticists test animals, they find there is all kinds of “cheating” going on: incest, mating with other species … you know.
“Foxes, especially red foxes, are the worst. They’re just crazy,” Gehrt said. Not coyotes.
The Urban Coyote Research Project did the largest genetic study of coyotes — or any other kind of canid — genotyping almost 900 animals in 18 years. They found no evidence of cheating. And they still haven’t found any evidence of divorce; only if one dies does a coyote get another mate.
“So for the vast majority of animals, they are only going to mate with one other animal for life,” Gehrt said.
It takes a village
Coyotes have litters of between three and 12 pups. The male mate and “subordinates” in the pack help the mother raise the pups.
“There’s a strong parenting instinct in both the female and male,” he said. “And occasionally they’ll adopt pups from other litters.”
Because of this added help, coyote pups have a much higher survival rate than those of other species, like raccoons, “where it’s only what the mother can raise herself,” Gehrt said.
An example of the good results of these coyote relationships was a female that he and his colleagues followed for 12 years. She and her mate, Mellonhead (so named because of his large, round head), had eight litters totaling about 70 pups.
Only when she died of kidney failure did he get another, younger, mate. Mellonhead had one litter with her, then he died. All this took place in a marshy area behind a Walmart.
Because there is no hunting or trapping of coyotes in urban areas, the survival rate for pups is almost six times that of rural areas. To avoid people, they must restrict their activities to nighttime, which is not the case in rural areas. That may be why there are few complaints about coyotes in cities.
If you are confronted by a coyote, hazing is allowed; in fact, recommended. Search on “coyote hazing” and you will find videos advising you to yell, hold a stick or golf club above your head to appear larger, make noise — shaking a coffee can filled with rocks works well, so does opening and closing an umbrella.
An exception is if the coyote appears to be sick, in which case “just get out of there,” said Westerfield. In two documented cases of coyotes attacking humans in Ohio, one had symptoms of rabies, the other distemper.
In almost all cases, coyotes want to avoid us as much as we want to avoid them. “They’re not creatures to be feared,” he said.
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