Recent research suggests that coyotes could prove to be just the first of a wave of larger carnivores — bears, cougars and wolves — moving into residential areas.
Only a few decades ago, Wile E. Coyote in hapless pursuit of Road Runner may have been the most readily conjured image of Canis latrans, the coyote, for most city dwellers.
But increasingly, residents of urban and suburban areas are having firsthand experience with coyotes in their own yards, parks and neighborhoods.
Coyotes now inhabit every state except Hawaii, eating mostly rodents, rabbits and fruit while making their homes between apartment buildings and in industrial parks and recreation areas in metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Recent research suggests that coyotes could prove to be just the first of a wave of larger carnivores — bears, cougars and wolves — moving into residential areas.
But while the long-running battle over how best to protect and manage another, larger carnivore — the wolf — has often pitted environmentalists and animal-welfare groups against sportsmen and ranchers, much of the debate over urban coyote management is now playing out at a local level.
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“There’s a number of things that coyotes really find to their liking in suburban communities, more than adjacent wild areas,” said Robert Timm, a wildlife specialist and the director of the University of California’s Hopland Research and Extension Center. Food set out regularly for a pet or stray cat, fallen fruit in the yard, a small dog off-leash, a cat wandering the neighborhood, a bird feeder stocked year-round — all of these things can attract coyotes.
A bold coyote that lacks a natural wariness of humans can be a problematic one.
“Coyotes are more opportunistic and harder to deal with than wolves are,” Timm said. “They are much more clever, in some cases able to adapt to new situations and able to outsmart control efforts.”
But Camilla Fox, the founder of Project Coyote, an organization in Larkspur, Calif., that promotes appreciation of coyotes and seeks to minimize lethal control, says coyote behavior is often misinterpreted.
“I may see a coyote in my neighborhood and recognize that coyote is moving through, looking for a mate,” she said. “A neighbor might say that coyote is a danger.”
Those polarized attitudes are common.
“People have very strong opinions on coyotes and carnivores in general — very strong support, and very strong negative attitudes, some of which may be unjustified,” said Paul Curtis, a wildlife biologist at Cornell University who helped lead a five-year study of coyote behavior in Westchester County, in New York.
Not surprisingly, coyote episodes reported close to home, if not experienced firsthand, can influence attitudes.
“People are initially really excited, or at least intrigued: ‘I want to see what their behavior is, and where they live, and what they eat, what their pups are like,’ ” Timm said.
“But if your pet gets bitten, or your cat gets killed and you find parts of it on your front lawn in the morning, then you have a whole different conception of whether it’s good to have coyotes in the community,” he said.
Cornell researchers who surveyed residents of four Westchester towns in New York before and after two coyote attacks on children in July 2010 in the county found that “residents were aware that coyotes could harm pets” at the time of the first survey in 2006. “But the possibility of harm to people was a hypothetical risk until the events during summer 2010.”
The fall after the attacks, nearly half of respondents in each of two study areas (Somers and Yorktown, along the county’s northern border, and Mount Pleasant and Greenburgh, two more densely populated towns along the southwestern edge) expressed “great concern” about the threat to small children. Four years earlier, only about 37 percent had expressed that sentiment.
More than a year after the attacks, the worries had not subsided. Concern about coyotes and perception of risk, the study’s authors wrote, appeared to have been elevated to “a new norm.”
Some communities have adopted management plans that “haze” the animals rather than kill them. Denver, which enacted a hazing program in 2009, has found that persistent and consistent deterrents, such as loud noises and chasing the coyotes, can help make them wary of people and pave the way for coexistence.
“The reality is coyotes are incredibly adaptable, intelligent, resilient animals, and they have learned how to coexist with us,” Fox said. “But we’re still trying to figure out how to coexist with them.”