The Ubiquitous Coyote


To paraphrase William Faulkner, the highly adaptable coyote has not just survived, it has prevailed. “It has defied every effort to defeat it—hundreds of thousands are deliberately and legally killed every year—and has literally taken over North America,” wrote William K. Stevens in a New York Times article in 1999. For a species that was unknown in the Eastern US until the 20th century, the coyote’s territorial expansion is a stunning success story.

Coyotes now live in every county in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, say biologists employed by the three states. And while they have long been implicated in the deaths of sheep, goats and calves on rural farms, they are now among the usual suspects when pets—small dogs and cats—turn up missing in suburban and urban settings. Coyotes began appearing in Tennessee more than 30 years ago, and have called the entire state home for more than 20 years, says Warr. But the coyote issue “has gotten more attention in the last year than in the previous five to 10 years.” Coyotes “aren’t a major predator on cattle in the state, and Tennessee doesn’t have many sheep or goat farms,” but coyote complaints are increasing in urban and suburban areas. In a Nashville park last summer, “we had a situation where a mated pair was showing aggressive behavior near its den toward people walking their pets. We get complaints about pets—primarily small dogs—that have
disappeared. People see coyotes, and put two and two together, though we never know for sure [that coyotes are responsible].”

Perry Sumner, furbearer biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, is hearing similar complaints. The state stopped tracking the spread of coyotes in 2000, the year in which they were first reported in all 100 NC counties. “There don’t seem to be a lot of coyotes anywhere [in North Carolina], but they’re everywhere,” Sumner says. “Some are causing problems, killing and eating livestock and pets. We’re probably getting more reported incidents from urban areas—where pets disappear, or people report that they’ve seen a coyote snatch a cat or dog—than from livestock owners now. We have sporadic problems with livestock depradations, mostly sheep and goats. Sheep are easy for coyotes to kill. Every aggressive instinct has been bred out of them. We get some reports that they’ve killed cattle, but that’s hard to document.” Coyotes sometimes feed on carrion, among many other things; food habit studies show they subsist primarily on wild rodents. A coyote feeding at the carcass of a large animal may have killed it, or merely happened upon it.

Coyotes “aren’t a big problem in North Carolina and they probably never will be, because we don’t have that much livestock out there. They would be a huge problem, if things were the way they were 30 years ago, when lots of families had a few animals out on the back lot. But that’s not the way it is now,” Sumner says.

The situation in Virginia, where there are a substantial number of sheep farms, is different. Most coyote complaints in the state still come from livestock farmers, says Randy Farrar, furbearer project leader for the Wildlife Division of Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “We’re getting more coyote questions from urban areas than we used to.”

Like North Carolina, coyotes have turned up in every Virginia county only recently. But in the last decade, the state’s coyote population has grown “basically exponentially”, says Farrar. “The bottom line is that they’re everywhere now, where probably five years ago they weren’t. They are very abundant, by Virginia standards,
west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There were records of sporadic takes of coyotes in the Shen-andoah Valley in the 1950s; by the early 1970s, numbers were increasing. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the Valley’s coyote population really took off.”

Virginia’s Coyote Damage Control Program

Anticipating problems, in 1990 the state and federal governments, and Virginia sheep farmers established one of only two “coyote damage control” programs in the eastern US (the other is in West Virginia). The program has primarily served the state’s western-most counties, where the bulk of sheep producers are located.
Increasingly, requests for help are coming from cattle farmers in south-central Virginia, the last part of the state into which coyotes expanded their range. Calf predation by coyotes is a growing concern among producers, particularly in southwest Virginia and increasingly in the Piedmont, Chad Fox, supervisory wildlife biologist with the USDA’ s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Wildlife Services, wrote in the program’s status report. However, current funding levels ìlimit the ability of the program to respond to this increasing demand for service from cattle producers.

In Fiscal Year (FY) 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Virginia’s Cooperative Coyote Damage Control Program served 197 farms in 28 western counties, a 38 percent increase from FY 2001. According to Fox’s report, livestock verified killed or injured by coyotes in Virginia in FY 2002 numbered 234 sheep, 35 calves and 120 goats — a “25 percent increase in reported sheep predation, a 133 percent increase in calf predation, and a 25 percent increase in reported goat predation from FY 2001.” Still, sheep losses per farm served have decreased markedly in the last decade — from 16.8 in 1993 to 2.1 in 2002. Wildlife Services “has been able to consistently keep sheep losses to an average of approximately 5 or fewer sheep per farm for six consecutive years.”

“We’re definitely not controlling the coyote population; we’re managing the amount of damage that occurs,” Fox acknowledges. Damage control includes providing technical assistance (information on using guard animals, available control methods and evaluation of predator-killed livestock) and “direct control services” to eliminate coyote problems, mostly by killing them. Direct control includes both preventative control (removing coyotes before losses occur) and corrective control (removing after losses).

In FY 2002, the 125 farms (59 sheep, 61 cattle and five goat farms) at which coyotes were preventatively removed suffered no predator kills of livestock. But losses were up by 8 percent at farms where corrective control was taken. More than 60 percent of the 394 coyotes removed in FY 2002 were killed using M44s —cyanide ejectors that spray sodium cyanide into the mouths and noses of animals that tug on baited traps. Most of the rest were captured using snares and leghold traps.

Coyote damage control is expensive business. Program costs in Virginia for FY 2002 were $228,000: $85,000 from the state; $22,000 from the VA Sheep Industry Board; and $121,000 from the federal government. (that works out to $578.68 per dead coyote). A budget crisis prompted Virginia’s governor to slash support for coyote control in FY 2003, but the state’s $85,000 share has been restored in the FY 2004 budget, Fox says.

Coyotes on the Blue Ridge

The only coyote I’ve ever seen in the eastern US was several years ago on the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Jeffress Park (NC). To find out whether the number of parkway coyote sightings has increased in recent years, I called four resource management specialists who work up and down the parkway’s 470 miles. Lillian McElrath says the number of reported coyote sightings between Grandfather Mountain and the Smokies seems to have stabilized. Coyotes are being reported “everywhere, but not more often.”

Bob Cherry, who works out of the BRP Blowing Rock office says, “We’ve had confirmed reports [of sightings], but we don’t do any trapping, or go out looking for them. My sense is that they’ve increased a little, but I don’t have any statistical information to back that up.” Tom Davis, at the Rocky Knob (VA) office, voices a similar uncertainty. “We’ve had a couple struck by cars in the last year or so, and the rangers see them on a fairly regular basis. But I haven’t heard too many complaints from the farmers I work with [on parkway agricultural leases]. Virginia does allow farmers to shoot them, and I have hunter friends who have taken them. But it’s been kind of quiet on the coyote front this year.”

Jim Basinger, who works on the northernmost section (Rockfish Gap to Milemarker 106) says that while he “hasn’t heard much about the coyote situation on the last couple of years, the short answer to the question, ‘Are you seeing more coyotes now than five years ago?’ is ‘yes.’ I’m not saying there’s a big increase in the coyote population, but more of a movement into the area.” Basinger, who worked out west before coming to the parkway, says he’s been discouraged to learn that a few Virginia counties have placed bounties on coyotes. “History has taught us that bounties, shooting and poisoning, don’t work. It’s a short term solution; as soon as you discontinue it, the population skyrockets, and you’ve wasted all that money.”

Bounties have also been instituted recently in Scott and Campbell counties in Tennessee, Ed Warr says. “We’ve told them it won’t make much difference; that they’re wasting their money. You can kill a whole bunch of coyotes, and you won’t be coyote-free. What you need to do is change your animal husbandry practices. Bounties have been proven not to work. The U.S. government has waged war on coyotes for 100 years, and their range has expanded. It would be quite a logistical undertaking to get rid of coyotes.”

Why have coyotes been so successful? They have a lot going for them. They’re adaptible, smart, wary, blessed with keen eyesight, exceptional hearing, and an acute sense of smell. They’re fast—both afoot and to learn from experience. And they’ll eat practically anything. Scat studies have identified close to 100 kinds of food in their diet—everything from the aforementioned rodents, carrion and domesticated animals to insects, birds and a variety of fruits (watermelons, persimmons, cantaloupe and blackberries are among their favorites). Like gulls, whose populations have also exploded in the last century, they find landfills good scavenging grounds. In urban and suburban areas, they feed off pet food (as well the pets themselves). “It’s not a good idea to leave pet food outside,” Sumner says. “They’ll take advantage of a situation like that.” Despite the fact their numbers are growing, “they haven’t had a measurable impact on turkey, rabbit or deer populations,” he says. “The only wildlife species they appear to impact is red foxes, which they kill, but don’t eat. Telemetry studies have shown that red fox pop-ulations decline where coyote numbers are increasing. This doesn’t seem to be the case with gray foxes. Some people think that’s because gray foxes can climb trees and red foxes (and coyotes) can’t, but I’m not sure about that.”

While coyotes once occupied an ecological niche between wolves and foxes—they share characteristics with each of their wild canid cousins—extirpation of wolves from most of their former range meant coyotes lost most of their competition for “top dog.” (Where wolf and coyote territories overlap, wolves keep coyote numbers in check.) Coyotes can interbreed with wolves — how much wolf/coyote interbreeding has gone on no one knows — and also with domesticated dogs to produce fertile offspring. Coyote/dog interbreeding is limited by the fact that coyotes (like wolves) come into heat only once a year (January through March), and aren’t receptive at other times of year.

Fragmented forests and the proliferation of edge habitat (where coyotes’ preferred prey flourish) have benefited coyotes enormously. Because food resources are limited in the wildest areas in the Southern Appalachians — the high-elevation, heavily forested mountains — coyotes are less abundant there. In parts of the Piedmont where former pastures are being converted to pine plantations, they’re also less common once the pines are 7-8 years old — and for the same reason, says Farrar.
“They like a mixture of open land and forest. We had our first rabid coyote early this year, a verified report. The animal was infected with a raccoon strain of rabies. Probably it was bitten by a rabid raccoon. We have an abundant raccoon population, and will probably see more rabid coyotes as their numbers increase.”


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