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April 20, 2012

Coyotes Among Us, Page 3: Ambassadors of Peace, Naturalists Promote Hazing Over Shooting

Wildlife advocates persuade communities to use nonlethal control methods

All Animals magazine

  • John Harrison

by Karen E. Lange

Mitchell, the Rhode Island researcher, began her study in 2004 after what seemed like an explosion of alarmingly bold animals on Aquidneck and Conanicut islands in Narragansett Bay. Coyotes were taking little dogs and making some people afraid to venture into their yards (though others were happily feeding the new neighbors). The bay had frozen in the mid-1990s, and around the same time coyotes somehow reached the islands—by walking over the ice or making it across a highway bridge. Mitchell found that the coyotes were attracted to certain areas and able to have larger than normal litters because of around 100,000 pounds of meat just there for the taking: livestock carcasses piled in dumps during the winter because the ground was too hard to bury them, and deer left along the road after being hit by cars. She developed a plan for nonlethal control. But, before she knew it, last year the police in Middletown started shooting coyotes. Mitchell had to use her powers of persuasion.

“I told them, ‘Wait a minute, you’re going to make things worse—you shoot out the territorial residents and you’ve got anarchy!’ ” says Mitchell. “... [Killing coyotes] creates a sink, a vacuum, into which all the coyotes who don’t have a home go.”

The police stopped shooting, and communities turned to nonlethal means. Middletown adopted an ordinance under which people are warned and then subject to increasing fines up to $500 per day for the placing of attractants. To reduce the carcass supply, Mitchell created composters that dissolve dead animals in potassium hydroxide and warm water, producing fertilizer. To pinpoint areas where people are feeding coyotes, she launched a “coyscouts” program that tracks selected animals using collars that report their locations every 15 minutes. “A lot of times [people will] say, ‘Oh, no one’s feeding the coyotes.’ We post the data online so they’re going to see that Mrs. McGillicuddy’s yard is a mecca.”

What happens when people feed coyotes »

The HSUS’s White Dasher monitors news reports of urban coyotes from across the country and, when communities are poised to kill, convinces them to try nonlethal approaches. She did it in 2010 in Wheaton, Ill., which had hired a trapper but soon asked a city administrator to research and draft a nonlethal plan. And she did it again in Calcasieu, La., in 2011. In both places, complaints dropped off steeply, and no one has been bitten. White Dasher has provided hazing training to more than 100 animal control officers in San Diego County, the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, southern Louisiana, and elsewhere. This year, The HSUS and the California-based nonprofit Project Coyote are trying to block a plan to kill coyotes in Carson in Southern California, a region that perhaps because of its geography—canyons full of homes surrounded by hills full of wildlife—has for decades led the country in reports of coyote attacks. Project Coyote already brought nonlethal management to Calabasas, another Los Angeles suburb.

There’s a debate among experts over whether hazing works in all situations and whether it’s an appropriate response to habituated coyotes who grow increasingly aggressive. Some argue that once coyotes have learned approaching humans is safe and may yield food, they can’t relearn their fear of people and should be killed before they attack. This viewpoint was promoted by a prominent 2004 review of coyote attacks, which has since been criticized for its conclusions; two of its authors work for Wildlife Services, a federal program that kills coyotes at the request of ranchers and state and local governments. But the study is widely read and often cited by communities as a reason for trapping and shooting.

White Dasher, who assisted Gehrt with his research and has written papers with him on urban coyote attacks, is firmly in the camp of those who believe hazing is the best and most effective response unless a coyote bites a person. Hazing relies on the coyote’s innate adaptability. Coyotes are smart. In Native American stories, they’re depicted as tricksters. They can quickly learn to avoid people.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration that hazing works comes from Denver, where Ashley DeLaup became the city’s wildlife ecologist in 2008 just as coyote complaints were climbing. A drought had shrunk the rabbit and rodent populations and forced coyotes into more populated areas searching for food and water. Two people were bitten in the suburb of Broomfield and one in Erie, farther to the north; dogs were involved in two of the attacks. Soon after, a woman who let her old dog walk off leash in southeastern Denver was bitten when she tried to stop three coyotes from attacking her pet.

DeLaup confronted an uneasy situation in Denver’s Bible Park, where coyotes had gotten so used to people they lounged in the grass a short distance from humans and just watched. Some followed runners down trails, and a pack of four attacked large dogs and pets in backyards surrounding the park. DeLaup might have sent someone out to trap or shoot the individuals in that family group. Instead, she put hazing to the test, sending trained staff to the park early every morning with air horns and tennis balls. In less than a month, the coyotes withdrew. They remain in the park but hunt only animals such as mice. They stay away from people and pets.

Think of hazing as training, says DeLaup, who has carried this message to more than 9,000 city residents. “We’re basically teaching our resident coyotes how to behave.”

Coyotes Among Us, Page 4: The Model Refined »

Read more from this issue of All Animals »

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