A coyote is member of the dog family (canids), which includes dogs, wolves, and foxes. Their bushy tail is black-tipped, their ears are erect and eyes, yellow. The color of their coats can range from light or reddish grey to a buff colour. Photo: Marya, San Luis Obispo.
As human settlement in the United States continues to spread out, we are altering the environments where many wildlife species live. Some species have very particular habitat requirements and these inflexible species are disappearing, while adaptable ones are thriving. When environmental change happens rapidly, behaviorally plastic species have an advantage.1 Coyotes (Canis latrans) are popularly known for being wily and adaptive, and they certainly live up to the persistent aspect of the caricature. In their ability to adapt to human presence, they are an exemplary species.
Coyotes originally occupied the southwestern U.S., but they spread throughout North America in the last century:
- They were established as far east as Louisiana in the late 1940s.
- They called Arkansas home in the 1960s, and they were in all of the southeastern states by the 1980s.2
- Currently, coyotes live in every state in the continental U.S., much of Canada, and range from Costa Rica (10° north latitude) to Alaska (70° north).
Coyotes will subsist on prey from rodents, rabbits, insects, and fruit to ungulates (animals having hoofs; e.g., cattle and deer), pets, and livestock. There are few species—especially predators—who live in as many habitats, and who have expanded their range as much as the coyote.3
Coyotes in conflict with humans
In the past, only livestock producers felt the impact of coyotes, and the industry continues to be impacted. In 2005, coyotes were responsible for 60.5% of an estimated $18.3 million in sheep losses to predation.4 Because coyotes have killed sheep and goats in North America ever since domestic species were introduced, coyote management in rural areas has been long, intensive, and often passionate.5
Modern wildlife management has focused on minimizing conflicts with coyotes in individual management situations rather than attempting to limit their populations.6 Indeed, because every pair of coyotes produces about six surplus young per year, and surrounding animals will quickly refill any territorial gaps, models suggest that greater than 70% of coyotes have to be removed from a population for several consecutive years in order to actually reduce a population.7 If only currently acceptable management methods are allowed, extirpating [completely getting rid of, killing off, or destroying something considered undesirable] coyote populations on a large scale is probably no longer possible. Thus, coyotes are among us, and they are here to stay.
In recent decades, Canis latrans has also made its presence known to the non-agricultural public as coyotes are becoming more of a threat in cities.8 With reported attacks beginning in the late 1970s and rising to the last decade’s range of 8-16 per year in California alone,9 the potential for conflict is on the rise. Scientists have concluded that many attacks on humans are predatory in nature,10 and the recent death of a teenage Canadian,11 raises the question of just how dangerous coyotes can be, and what we can do to prevent such tragedies. The relative threat is low and widespread panic and alarm is unwarranted, of course. For example, far more people in the United States are killed by lightening each year (averaging about 138 per year from 1945-1991),12 but the loss of any human life to a predator, especially if it can be prevented, is unacceptable.
A remarkably adaptable species
Seven coyote pups. Pups are usually born in April or May when food is abundant. Only 5-20% of coyote pups survive their first year. Juveniles are often heard in summer, emitting yelps to try out their voices. Within a year, they leave their family to stake out their own territory. Photo: John Harrison
Coyotes are remarkably adaptable—they will take advantage of many different types of environments. High reproductive potential virtually guarantees the coyotes’ ultimate survival and success in North America.
Due to their smaller size (10-20 kg), individual coyotes are not nearly as dangerous as larger predators,13 but because coyotes live among humans in cities and towns, and Grizzly bears and wolves do not, there is more potential for serious conflict with coyotes than with other species of predators.
Coyotes are adaptable creatures that will alter their activity and space use patterns in response to humans,8,14 and they will also rapidly adjust to shifts in prey resources and distribution.1
Coyotes are individualistic, with different responses to different management techniques. This allows different individuals to adapt to different environments successfully.15 Their behavioral variability, however, also makes their management more difficult; because not all coyotes are equally susceptible to all management methods, no single approach will always be successful.
Are we moving into coyote’s homes, or are we inviting them into ours?
As urban sprawl has increased, so have human conflicts with coyotes, and one conclusion that can be made is that conflicts are occurring because humans are moving into areas where coyotes already live. Like all things biological, however, the situation is a little more complicated than it appears. Humans began to change the landscape, which probably benefited coyotes, long before we built housing tracts. Native Americans burned and altered vegetation, which created new growth and altered prey distribution and abundance. When Europeans arrived, trees were logged, fields were plowed, and deserts were irrigated, which changed the composition of forests.
Modern wildlife management, agricultural and suburban developmental practices, and perhaps ironically, predator control, continue to provide survival advantages for coyotes. Many productive crops are irrigated and cultivated across the United States, and coyotes, being opportunistic generalists, eat things like melons and other fruit, as well as the rodents and ungulates that also benefit from irrigation and planting.3 We have also very successfully removed the coyote’s intolerant larger brother, the wolf (Canis lupus),16 from most of its historical range, and therefore, have provided the coyote a landscape where it can ascend to be an apex predator, too.17 In suburban developments, with open space and parks adjacent to houses, fruit trees, garbage, pets, and other potential food items, it is not simply that we have moved into the coyote’s home, but we have also invited them into ours.
Anywhere predators and people live in proximity to each other there will be opportunity for conflict. Coyotes kill things for a living, but any given coyote—even one that has adapted to living in an urban area—is unlikely to attack an adult or child. If, however, a coyote loses its wariness and fear of humans—especially if people have fed it intentionally—the danger is real.
The following describes a coyote behavior pattern in an urban area that shows how the risk factor to humans increases over time:9
- Night-time observations of coyotes in neighborhoods increase.
- Coyotes approach pets and may begin killing them at night.
- Coyotes are then observed more in the morning and during daylight hours.
- Coyotes attack pets with owners nearby.
- Coyotes chase bicyclists.
- Coyotes move into public areas such as parks or children’s play areas.
- Coyotes now act aggressively toward adults during the middle of the day.
Difficulties of managing coyotes in the urban landscape
Public values and attitudes have shifted away from those traditionally held by agricultural producers.18 As a result, some techniques are now considered undesirable, and wildlife managers have a limited arsenal of tools they can use to solve conflicts. The urbanized public appears to enjoy seeing wildlife and prefers the use of nonlethal methods for wildlife management, not to mention that some lethal tools (e.g., shooting, trapping, and toxicants) may be as inappropriate to use in urban areas, as they are unwelcome there. A number of non-lethal management methods, such as fencing, frightening, and conditioning can be used in some situations,19 and even reproductive control, although not as efficient as removal in the short term, may have uses for managing small populations in small areas.21
Coyotes are complicated and often unpredictable animals, much like humans. Many coyotes live quietly in urban environments, behave in ways that make them largely undetected by most of the public, and do not cause problems.8 For reasons that are not entirely understood, however, some coyotes become bold, aggressive, and problematic—whereas others do not. Thus, merely seeing a coyote in an urban environment may or may not mean that a problem is developing that requires management.
The human element presents difficulties for managers too, because coyotes are likely to be seen dichotomously as either villain or victim, which complicates management and policy decisions. Relative to human health and safety, public officials are bound to remove potential threats to citizens and are often compelled to err on the side of caution. For them, the preferred option is to kill a coyote quickly rather than risk it biting a child. Coyotes cannot sue, but parents will.
Being charismatic underdogs, however, coyotes also have their champions when they appear to be punished because of the ignorance or actions of people. Unfortunately, wildlife managers are often not armed with sufficient sociological and biological methods21 to facilitate management of coyotes in urban environments.22 Although coyotes are not as polarizing as wolves,23 managers may need to overcome a fair amount of misinterpretation and misinformation produced by groups that either hate or coddle coyotes.
Stop problems before they start
A sign at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum advises visitors not to feed wild coyotes. Feeding coyotes can make the animals feel comfortable around humans, thus increasing the chances of an attack. Photo: Alyson Hurt of Arlington, Va.
The best solution to conflicts with coyotes in developed areas, from all perspectives, is to prevent problematic behaviors and possible coyote attractions before they begin:9
Small pets themselves are potential prey and food sources, but pet food left outdoors is also a draw.
Garbage, fruits, and seeds from trees, vines, and gardens provide food for coyotes, as well. Landscaping traits, not normally considered enticing, can attract coyotes and should be managed, such as brush piles that can harbor rodents and rabbits. Bird feeders may also attract small mammals.
Never feed coyotes. It is almost never a good idea to feed most wildlife—especially predators.
Use lights, noise, yell at, and harass coyotes when possible as any opportunity to reinforce coyotes’ wariness of humans may be useful. Once coyotes have begun acting boldly or aggressively around humans, however, it is unlikely that humans can apply any hazing attempts with sufficient consistency or intensity to reverse the coyotes’ habituation.
Work with local governments and agencies to develop plans and protocols before conflicts begin. After people have become frightened and outraged, it is difficult to have reasonable discussions about policies. It is important to objectively assess 1) how to prevent problems with coyotes; 2) what to do when problems emerge; and 3) at what threshold more intensive techniques (such as professional management and lethal removal) are required.
Use public education efforts to inform citizens about wildlife, but acknowledge the limitations of outreach: it is difficult to manage coyotes, but it is often much more difficult to alter human behavior.
Coyotes are here to stay
Coyotes have expanded the areas where they live throughout most of North America, and in many places they have become part of the urban landscape and moved into our towns and cities. They are here to stay, and complicated conflicts with them, including dangerous encounters, will increase.24,25 The time has come for scientists to better understand the habitats of the urban coyote, and to identify the best management techniques to use in cities and suburbs. Future management will also require education and planning on the part of citizens who have coyotes for neighbors. By using sound science and public policy, however, we should be able to find ways to live more harmoniously with these adaptable and interesting predators.
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