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April 20, 2012

Coyotes Among Us: Mostly Unseen, Coyotes Thrive in Urban Habitats

Changing our own behavior may be best way of coexisting with these smart, adaptable animals

All Animals magazine

  • Dru Bloomfield

About this series: This is the second story in a two-part series about the targeting of coyotes in rural and urban environments. Writer Karen E. Lange interviewed dozens of sources, including HSUS experts and other coyote advocates, scientists, and former and current government officials. Click here to read the first story, which examined the federal Wildlife Services killing program.

by Karen E. Lange with reporting by Ruthanne Johnson

After the sharpshooter the city council hired got death threats, Greenwood Village, Colo., asked police to take care of coyotes within the wealthy Denver suburb. A 14-year-old said he’d been charged by a coyote in a park on the last day of 2008. The boy was uninjured, but in early 2009 his mother demanded the animal be killed. Other residents, especially those whose dogs and cats had been attacked, also asked for lethal control. People were scared, confused, and angry.

In an effort to protect coyotes, local volunteers organized by WildEarth Guardians patrolled city parks, chasing away any of the animals they found. But the police lured in coyotes with distressed rabbit calls and shot them. They pursued animals flushed from cover, firing silencer-equipped weapons close to homes. They wounded fleeing animals, losing them in culverts and underbrush. By the end of the year, police had killed at least a dozen “dangerous and menacing” coyotes.

Today, the killing hasn’t stopped. After bad press and relentless criticism from animal advocates, police have only become more secretive and better at placing shots. Officers respond to complaints in plain clothes and unmarked cars. They dispatch coyotes with a Remington .223 rifle, bagging the animals and dropping their bodies in dumpsters. During a six-week period last fall, officers shot 12 coyotes, raising the total killed to 32—though not a single person has been bitten.

Shooting coyotes is supposed to be a last resort in Greenwood, used only if nonlethal means of keeping them at bay fail, according to the village’s official policy, adopted in early 2009. But the village also hopes to “thin” and “stabilize” the coyote population, according to a police memo. So if police see a coyote in an area where they’ve heard of the animals behaving aggressively—toward pets or people—officers gun him down.

On Feb. 15 of last year, someone called police to say that coyotes were eating a golden retriever near some tennis courts. There’s no evidence that a golden retriever was actually attacked, but police rushed to the park under the impression that someone’s pet had been killed. When they got there, they found three coyotes. Two of them continued to linger in a canal below the park.

Today, the killing hasn't stopped. ... Police have only become more secretive and better at placing shots.

“I made a determination that these animals were ... aggressive … [and] selected these two for lethal control,” wrote an officer. “... One of the coyotes was shot twice and the second was shot once with the departmental suppressed .223. … As we were walking up on the second animal, it attempted to get up. … [Another officer] discharged his sidearm once into the animal from close range. … [The first coyote] was a male approximately 40 pounds and the second was a pregnant female.”

It’s easy to get the impression from police reports that despite advice to pet owners to keep their cats inside and their dogs close by, despite officers handing out whistles to scare off coyotes (police have spent more than 1,000 hours teaching hazing techniques), despite residents banging pots and pans, in the end there’s no other way to deal with these animals than to shoot them. Yet just a short distance away—across the city’s southern boundary of Orchard Road—the suburb of Centennial has chosen a far different, nonlethal approach, one endorsed by leading urban coyote experts and animal protection groups, and one that appears to be working elsewhere. What’s happening in Centennial is part of an experiment in coexistence being conducted in communities across the country, with encouragement from The HSUS and other advocacy groups. The search for a way to get along is especially intense in the Denver metropolitan area, where a rash of coyote attacks against humans—at least 13 bites—has occurred since the mid-2000s.

In Centennial, just as in Greenwood Village, coyotes are frequently spotted—some travel between the towns. And Centennial’s official coyote management policy doesn’t read too much differently from Greenwood’s. It includes enforcing a state law against feeding wildlife and a local law that dogs must be kept on leash, since the vast majority of conflicts with coyotes are caused by humans providing food or letting pets roam. But in Centennial no one shoots coyotes on orders from the city, and no one likely will, unless a person is bitten. It’s a different culture, says revenue manager Karen Stickland: Dogs don’t take priority over wildlife. Anyway, she adds, Centennial relies on the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement, and “the sheriff told us there was no way we were killing coyotes.”

"We're not teaching coyotes anything by shooting them."

Instead, the city relies solely on nonlethal means: tracking complaints to identify areas where animals may have become habituated and lost their fear of people. Educating the public not to feed coyotes, intentionally or unintentionally. Recruiting volunteers to hand out information and hazing whistles. Instructing people to secure garbage in sealed containers, keep pet food inside, collect fruit fallen from trees, clean up birdseed, and make sure pets don’t roam and aren’t left alone in yards, especially at night. Teaching residents to protect their dogs by walking them on short leashes, and grabbing and holding small pets if they see a coyote. And training people to haze the coyotes they encounter by facing them down, yelling, throwing rocks, and otherwise harassing the animals until they retreat and once again learn to be wary of humans.

Hazing is key, says HSUS urban wildlife specialist Lynsey White Dasher, because it quickly teaches coyotes the behaviors that humans will not tolerate—information the animals then pass on to pups and other members of their family groups.

“We’re not teaching coyotes anything by shooting them.”

Coyotes Among Us, Page 2: Urban Legends »

Read more from this issue of All Animals »

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