by Whit Gibbons

January 8, 2012

Several weeks ago I wrote a column answering questions about coyotes and their relatively recent appearance as an integral part of the southeastern fauna. Most of what I reported was accurate but, alas, I made some errors that need to be corrected. After talking with several wildlife biologists who work with deer and coyotes, I am setting the record straight on a few points.

All of us agree that coyotes historically occurred naturally throughout most of the western United States but were absent or at least not an influential part of native wildlife in the Southeast. Coyotes arrived in the area by various means; which of those means was most significant is debatable (and a topic for another column). That they are now widespread, with a notable presence in most eastern states, is incontestable. How do they affect other wildlife, pets, and people in their new home?

In the earlier column I said I was unaware of records of coyotes attacking humans. That is still true for most areas, but not in Southern California. A publication titled "Coyote Attacks: An Increasing Suburban Problem" by Robert M. Timm of the University of California (Hopland) provides some eye-catching statistics about what can happen in suburbs adjacent to wild habitat where coyotes live. Without question, situations can develop in which being concerned about the safety of pet dogs and cats as well as young children would be practical. In addition, the Southern California records include more than 50 coyote attacks on adults who were jogging, walking pets, bicycling, or even in their own yards.

The fact that many more Californians are bitten and hospitalized by domestic dogs each year than by coyotes does not lessen the level of concern residents in some areas should have about the wild canines. The study provided a stepwise accounting of coyote incidents that preceded attacks on people in Southern California. Could these "increasingly bold" behaviors be guides to what could be expected in other regions? Sightings of coyotes at night and nighttime attacks on pets were followed by observations of coyotes during daylight hours. Then they began to attack free-roaming pets during the day, followed by attacks on pets on leashes and in people's yards. Soon coyotes were chasing people down the street and could be seen in the middle of the day "in and around children's play areas." By this point, a community should be aware that it has a problem.

In trying to unravel an explanation for the Southern California situation, the researchers found that the coyotes had lost their fear of humans and become dependent on people for food. Coyotes living in the wildlands surrounding suburbia supplemented their diet by feeding on garbage and outdoor pet food. Plus, some residents intentionally fed them! An additional complication for wildlife managers in certain areas was that public sentiment was against predator control programs, which would have eliminated coyotes that became habituated to being around humans. Clearly, coyotes, like any wild, predatory animal, can become a problem for a community; the red flags to watch for are pretty obvious.

Wildlife management programs must also address how coyotes entering a new habitat can affect prey populations, which in the Southeast would include whitetail deer. John C. Kilgo of the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station wrote an excellent commentary titled "Can Coyotes Affect Deer Populations in Southeastern North America?" that was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. He suggests that coyotes may be having an impact on the popular game species. The research by him and his colleagues found that when coyotes become prevalent they prey heavily on deer fawns and at the same time deer populations decline. Deer hunting is a major source of revenue and recreation in many parts of the Southeast and could be severely affected by a new source of predation. Additional research on the interactions between coyotes and deer as well as other wildlife is definitely needed and should be encouraged by state and federal agencies.

Meanwhile, don't feed any coyotes in your neighborhood.

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