Coyotes ’round the Town

Alyssa Carol, mother of two, recalls the swish of a tail and a barely recognizable blur darting across the street, just missing her car, in San Francisco’s Diamond Heights at 5 am on a Monday morning. “I barely had time to realize it was a coyote,” she remembers. Carol, a self-described “city slicker,” was enthralled by her close encounter with the wild canid in early spring of 2007.

Not long after, a pair of coyotes was killed in Golden Gate Park after they attacked a dog on a leash. “It was a public safety issue because of their aggressive behavior,” explains Kyle Ott, of California Fish & Game. “If coyotes have access to garbage and human food, they often lose caution and fear.” Despite community outrage, the animals were shot the day after the attack. In 2008, another coyote was shot in the Presidio under similar circumstances.

These incidents are by no means isolated. Coyotes are showing up in the Bay Area more than ever before, and increasing contact with humans means that at least some are becoming more aggressive. A 2004 study by a University of California wildlife specialist, Coyote Attacks: An Increasing Suburban Problem, reports an increase in the frequency and intensity of coyote attacks in California over the past decade. Since 1970, there have been more than 160 attacks, and they are becoming more frequent, particularly in Southern California. The study found that some coyotes have begun chasing joggers and bicyclists, confronting people walking their dogs, and stalking small children—mostly at the suburban-wildland interface.

Although it is unclear if the Bay Area is part of the coyote’s historical range, they have lived for years in central Contra Costa County’s Briones Regional Park and Sunol Regional Wilderness near Pleasanton, both part of the East Bay Regional Parks system. They’re also in the City by the Bay, in parks such as Mount Davidson and Glen. The Marin Headlands, Milagra Ridge, and Oakwood Valley contain coyotes, says Christine Powell of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Novato and San Rafael also have coyote reports. “We tend to see an increase in these sightings between July and November,” says Cindy Machado, animal services director at the Marin Humane Society in Novato.

But are the aggressive coyotes just a few bad actors? Or are we the bad actors by strewing our environment with just about everything they need?

Found mainly on the Great Plains, the American coyote has expanded its range over the last century in response to the eradication of wolves and human modification of landscapes. Coyotes play an important ecological role in their environment, however fragmented, by maintaining healthy ecosystems and species diversity. As a top carnivore, they function as “keystone predators,” helping to regulate the number and density of smaller mesocarnivores such as skunks, raccoons, foxes, and feral cats. Their perceived ability to control rodent populations is one of their more popular attributes.

Unlike larger carnivores, coyotes thrive in urban landscapes, increasing in numbers as they live in greater proximity to people. Part of the reason lies in their flexibility of home range and diet. For example, in California’s urban sprawl, humans have created landscapes that support large amounts of rodents, rabbits, and other wildlife. Wily Coyote has taken notice of the year-round abundance of food, water, and shelter.

“Coyotes are amazingly adaptable and will take advantage of situations that favor them,” says Robert M. Timm, director and wildlife specialist at UC Davis’ Hopland Research and Extension Center. Coyotes, says Timm, “are an opportunistic omnivore.” He cites feral cats as an example of a factor that favors coyotes—the cats are easy prey. Says Christine Powell of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, “We are the source of pet food, garbage, and food from park visitors, so they don’t necessarily move to more rural areas when humans encroach.”

Brian Murphy, on the board of the Walnut Creek Open Space Foundation, has seen the impact of coyotes in his neighborhood—and in his view, coyotes have brought positive changes for native wildlife. “In Walnut Creek it was the people dumping and feeding feral cats who brought coyotes into neighborhoods looking for more easy meals of outdoor cats,” says Murphy. “It took the coyotes awhile to clean out feral cat colonies, but once the cat feeders realized they were just feeding their cats to coyotes, they stopped. Then coyotes moved into neighborhoods looking for cats outdoors at night. Those neighborhoods are now filled with California quail because the outdoor cats are gone.

“Now the coyotes are starting to come downtown early in the morning to the creek where feral cat people are dumping and feeding cats,” he continues. “That’s how wildlife becomes ‘urbanized’—just put out food, and the wildlife will show up.”

In addition to the quail, says Murphy, bobcats have benefited from the coyote invasion. “The bobcat population in the open space was becoming decimated with feline disease spread by feral cat colonies, but as the coyotes removed the feral cats, the bobcat population is now recovering. I am a cat lover, but my cats are inside where they belong, safe and warm,” he says.

Urban environments may be resource-rich for coyotes, but they are also perilous. More coyotes die from being hit by cars than any other factor. Household poisons pose additional threats. “We know from several research studies both on the West and East coasts that secondary poisoning caused when coyotes consume rodents that have been poisoned by over-the-counter rat poison like d-Con is quite prevalent,” says Camilla Fox, director of Project Coyote in Marin County’s Larkspur and author of Coyotes in Our Midst: Coexisting with an Adaptable and Resilient Carnivore.

With approximately a dozen different vocalizations, two coyotes communicating with each other can be mistaken for a large pack, leading some people to misjudge the numbers of coyotes in the ‘hood. “The public seems to sometimes have a misguided fear of coyotes,” observes Machado. Coyotes tend to become more active, vocal, and territorial during pupping season, typically in April; parents bring food to the pups until they are old enough to join in the hunt. Although most coyotes are fearful of humans, coyotes that associate humans with food can become habituated to their presence, and during pupping, negative encounters between humans and coyotes can intensify.

“The very traits that have allowed coyotes to thrive, adapt, and coexist with humans even in the most populated regions of North America have also led to conflicts with people and their domestic animals,” remarks Fox. And, she points out, coyotes tend to bite the hand that feeds them: “The documented cases of coyotes biting humans are most often related to people intentionally or unintentionally feeding coyotes.”

Until about a decade ago, one main way of removing “problem” coyotes was foothold traps, with the captured animal shot at close range. In 1998, the use of such traps was banned throughout California in a voter measure that focused on fur trapping and humane issues. Now, in many areas of the state, no agency will respond to coyote attacks on pets. Explains Timm: “Publicly funded agencies such as the California Department of Fish & Game and the USDA’s Wildlife Services, the federal agency that now is responsible for predator control, have less funding, and therefore decreased time and staff to respond to reports of conflicts with coyotes and other wildlife. This has made it more difficult, in many areas, for problem coyotes to be removed by professional animal control personnel, and foothold traps are not available to be used until after coyotes have demonstrated aggressive behavior towards people.”

The likelihood is that few coyotes cause problems for pets or people, but it’s hard to tell for certain. “One of the difficulties in evaluating trends in coyote conflicts is that no single agency or organization is responsible for human-wildlife conflicts, and no one keeps consistent data on coyote complaints on a regional basis,” says Timm.

An estimated 400,000 coyotes are killed each year throughout the US by government agencies and private individuals. The UC-led study reports an overall reduction in coyote control efforts by federal and/or county agencies and wildlife-loving landowners over the past several decades. According to the study, this may have led to increased coyote attacks in two ways: coyote numbers are no longer suppressed, and coyotes’ fear of humans is no longer reinforced by lethal control efforts. “We believe that an effective preventive program is required to reduce conflicts,” says Timm. “Unfortunately, we do not know of reliable methods to reverse this aggressive behavior of habituated coyotes, once it has developed. Problem coyotes cannot be live-captured for release elsewhere, as that would result in legal liability to the individual or agency conducting the translocation, and there really isn’t any place to which they can be moved.”

Not everyone concurs with the “trapping-instills-fear” theory. Fox believes that lethal population control is not only futile but inhumane. “Indiscriminate lethal control is not an effective, sustainable, or ethical way of reducing coyote populations or conflicts over the long term,” she says. Mark Bekoff, author of books on animal behavior and editor of Coyotes: Biology, Behavior, and Management, says that killing coyotes is not an effective solution. “Coyotes are far too adaptable and smart, and rarely if ever is the ‘offending coyote’ gotten,” he says. “If trapping and killing coyotes worked, the problem would have been solved long ago. Coyotes are a repeated ‘problem’ because those who try to manage them refuse to stop killing them.”

What are the other options? “Good coexistence relies on having a healthy and genuine respect for these animals. It requires public officials to be flexible in their policies, and animal organizations to adapt to the new trends of living with wildlife,” observes Machado. Marin County has made a difficult though reportedly successful effort to proactively address coyote conflicts. Approximately fifty years ago, coyotes were driven from most of Marin as a result of trapping and poisoning programs. In suburban southern Marin, encounters between people, pets, and coyotes increased as coyotes recolonized the area over the past twenty years. In 2002, Fox and the Marin Humane Society developed a plan to address these conflicts; a county ordinance was adopted severely penalizing feeding coyotes.

In the Animal Protection Institute’s publication Coyotes and Humans: Can We Co-Exist? Fox details the successful aversive conditioning of one coyote in the Golden Gate National Recreational Area: the coyote was shot four times over approximately forty days with non-lethal paint balls. Bill Merkle, the NPS Biologist overseeing the effort, says this coyote ceased approaching people.

The GGNRA is trying to nip the problem in the bud. “We are now taking strident measures to deal with coyote interactions immediately so they are not habituated,” says Powell. “We have instructed all park residents to use trash receptacles that have locking tops, maintenance staff to ensure that park trash bins have the tops closed, residents to feed pets indoors, and putting up signs asking visitors not to feed them. We have been using paint ball guns and specially made rubber bullets to scare them away. To date, we have had success.”

The coyotes shot in Golden Gate Park are the darker side of the equation. Some residents expressed relief; others dismay and anger. Many felt the coyotes should have been relocated. Orr says relocation won’t work: “You only move the problems into someone else’s neighborhood.”

The coyote shot in the Presidio was likely from the GGNRA’s lands in Marin. First signs of coyotes appeared in the Presidio in 2002, and based on DNA tests, biologists theorize that these coyotes arrived in the City by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. A former military base, the Presidio has many buildings that are now rented for residential and non-residential uses. The Presidio Trust, the federal executive agency that manages the Presidio, follows a Wildlife Incident Response Protocol (WIRP) developed in cooperation with Fish & Game and the
National Park Service when dealing with coyotes or other aggressive wildlife. The WIRP identifies unacceptable behavior as: the animal repeatedly disturbs, raids, or investigates human or high-use areas; the animal displays unprovoked aggression; and the animal does not retreat when a human takes aggressive action to drive it off. In June of 2008, a coyote displayed these behaviors towards a Presidio resident and visitors. Presidio Trust natural resources staff first contacted wildlife rescue organizations and zoos to see if any would accept a coyote for relocation. When none would, the Trust contacted California Wildlife Services to humanely dispatch the animal.

“Removing an animal in this way is the last resort,” says Dana Polk, Presidio Trust spokesperson. “We work hard to educate residents, tenants, and visitors about living with wildlife. Our residents are here because they value and respect the Presidio’s natural resources, but safety obviously must be our highest priority.”

Timm believes that public opinion about coyotes is becoming more polarized. “At one extreme are residents who have suffered attacks on pets, children, or who themselves have been confronted by aggressive coyotes; some of these people want a local government agency to exterminate all the coyotes from the neighborhood by whatever means possible,” he says. “At the other extreme are animal protection and animal welfare groups that will not agree to having any lethal control of coyotes conducted, particularly if it is publicly funded. Often, they heavily promote preventive methods as the sole solution to the problem.”

Coyotes are moving in—and how to handle them will continue to be hotly debated as the Bay Area’s newest carnivores search for their next meal.

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