Coyotes Threaten Residents

in Connecticut, Fall 2004 Newswire, Richard Rainey
December 1st, 2004

By Richard Rainey

WASHINGTON, Dec. 1, 2004 — National Park Service ranger Ken Ferebee searched the spotlight beam on a late September evening, hoping to catch a deer in its circle for a nocturnal count he was conducting in Rock Creek Park, the meandering stream valley that runs through the heart of the nation’s capital.

As the light came to rest beneath a grove of trees, the shining eyes staring back at him were altogether unexpected.

“It was just out in some high grass under some oak trees, probably eating some acorns,” Ferebee said as he recounted the sighting..

On Sept. 19, Ferebee had officially spotted the first coyote in the District of Columbia. Four more sightings of furry interlopers in October and November confirmed that it wasn’t the only one.

“We’re not sure how many we have at this point,” Ferebee said, “at least two, maybe four or five.”

Coyotes, symbols of folklore and notorious pains-in-the-neck for ranchers in the West, had finished their steady expansion east over the last 100 years. For Connecticut residents, coyotes are old hat; the creatures have been lurking along fences and the edges of lawns for nearly half a century. The spotting in the District of Columbia, however, illustrates the pervasiveness of the species, and with the increasing numbers there have been increasing concerns in New England about how to deal with them.

Coyotes belong to the family Canidae , which includes the wolf, the fox and the domestic dog. Their coats range in colors from all black to all red but are most often mottled gray with a cream-colored underbelly. Standing about 2 feet high at the shoulders, a coyote sports a long snout, upright ears and a black-tipped tail; in dim light, it can resemble a thin German Shepherd.

While most specimens typically weigh 30 to 35 pounds, coyotes seem to have gained considerable size as they migrated into New England from Canada and the Great Lakes region. Researchers in Connecticut have caught males weighing close to 50 pounds. Speculation abounds among scientists as to the reason behind the greater size, but most evidence blames likely interbreeding with the growing wolf population as coyotes migrated east.

Active at dawn and in the late evening, coyotes are some of the greatest opportunists of the natural world. Living close to wolves, coyotes can often be spotted scavenging a wolf pack’s fresh kill. They’ve been known to take down deer, but prefer smaller mammals such as squirrels, mice and hares. As such, small domestic pets that venture outdoors need keep a wary eye.

“They seem to have a real fondness for cats,” said Christine Montuori, director of the Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, Md.

Coyotes have held a tumultuous place in history, one they carried with them as they traveled east. They were revered by American Indians as symbols of wisdom, but western ranchers tried to shotgun them into extinction as threats to livestock. Now, as they crawl beneath the fences along city limits, their reputations have many people feeling apprehensive.

“It’s an interesting psychological study, watching people’s reactions to them,” Laura Simon, urban wildlife director for the Fund for Animals, said from her office in New Haven. “We get calls here that coyotes are here to drag their children off.. People are scared to death of them. We have to correct a lot of misconceptions over our hotline.”

Simon noted that coyotes tended to avoid people at almost all costs, even going so far as to pass over garbage and other possible sources of a quick meal rather than risk contact.

“Coyotes, even in suburban areas, tend to make an honest living,” Simon said. “They ate what they were supposed to eat.”

Coyotes now exist in almost every major metropolitan center in the continental United States. In Chicago, for instance, naturalists have discovered them in every wooded section of the city, where they travel via aqueducts and abandoned “L” tracks from hunting ground to hunting ground.

The coyote population in Connecticut stands at roughly 3,000 to 5,000, having first entered the state some time in the 1950s, according to Paul Rego, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

While problem animals can be caught and killed, there is no concerted effort in Connecticut to control the coyote population. It’s just not feasible, said Rego.

“Coyotes have an extremely high reproductive rate,” he said. “To kill even a small percentage of the population, you’d have to put an astronomical bounty” on coyotes to entice hunters to put in the necessary effort. “If you removed half the population, they’d be back in a couple years.”

The best way to deal with the animals is to accept their presence and take precautions. These include keeping pet food indoors, supervising small dogs and cats outdoors or putting up fences around property.

Trapping and relocating the animals is not an option, Rego said. Trapping laws in Connecticut are strictly regulated, so much so that the only traps used must be placed in the winter and must be under water.

“Most of the species trapped in Connecticut have something to do with water,” Rego said, including beaver, mink and raccoons. The state has no traps specifically for coyotes.

The District of Columbia, with a significantly smaller coyote population, doesn’t have a need for residents and naturalists to examine man-predator interactions-at least not yet. The National Park Service is making plans to monitor the animals in Washington and surrounding areas. In the spring, rangers will use motion-sensitive cameras with the hope of locating breeding dens in Rock Creek Park.

But even without a den sighting, there’s strong evidence that coyotes will remain a permanent fixture.

“I doubt they’re going to disappear,” said Montuori of the Second Chance Wildlife Center. “Whether they become a problem is really anybody’s guess.”