The growing popularity of urban hunting is igniting a fierce debate over the perils and benefits coyotes pose in populated areas, and whether city dwellers ought to adapt to living alongside a cunning predator that has thrived.
COLUMBUS, Ohio —
Dennis Murphy sniffed the bobcat urine he uses to lure his prey. He checked the silencer on his AR-15 assault rifle and loaded a few snares into his Ford pickup.
“Let’s go kill some coyotes,” he said.
But he was not heading for the wilderness. Murphy’s stalking ground is on the contentious new frontier where hunters are clashing with conservationists: cities and suburbs.
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Coyotes are largely associated with their ancestral bastions in the wild lands of the American West, but they are highly adaptable, and in recent years they have been colonizing large population centers throughout North America. The hunters have come after them, stalking the predators in settings like strip-mall parking lots, housing-tract cul-de-sacs, and plazas in the shadow of skyscrapers.
The growing popularity of urban hunting is igniting a fierce debate over the perils and benefits coyotes pose in populated areas, and whether city dwellers ought to adapt to living alongside a cunning predator that has thrived since one of its top adversaries, the gray wolf, has been all but wiped out in much of the continent.
Enthusiasts for the urban coyote chase contend that they are helping to limit the spread of a pest that federal authorities already kill by the tens of thousands every year in eradication projects. Some also concede that they enjoy the thrill of urban hunting, which requires different kinds of training and marksmanship than prairie or mountain hunting.
“Coyotes are a formidable predator, moving into the places where we take our kids to school and walk our pets,” said Murphy, 59, a former Army Green Beret who has hunted bears in Alaska and now deals in the pelts of coyotes he kills in the suburbs of Columbus.
Some carnivore ecologists argue, though, that moving the hunt into cities will be self-defeating. They say it replicates the very tactics that have allowed coyotes to prosper despite a concerted onslaught against them. In an adaptation that biologists call fission-fusion, when coyotes come under pressure from hunters, their packs split up into lone animals and pairs, they start producing much larger litters, and they migrate into new areas.
Coyotes can be hunted legally in many built-up areas, but it sometimes leads to tragic mishaps. In New York state, a hunter in the upstate town of Sweden said he thought he was aiming his rifle at a coyote in February when he mistakenly shot a man in the abdomen. The hunter was charged with second-degree assault.
A licensed crossbow hunter in Readington Township, New Jersey, killed a family’s Alaskan shepherd after mistaking the dog for a coyote. A hunt in Pocatello, Idaho, went awry in March when an M-44 device, designed to propel a cyanide capsule into a coyote’s mouth, instead sprayed cyanide onto a 14-year-old boy, injuring him and killing his family’s dog.
Urban hunters and their prey are not limited to smaller towns and cities. Reports of coyote killings have come from major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and the suburbs of Chicago. As such episodes become more common, biologists say they cannot help marveling at the animal’s resilience and adaptability.
Coyotes are omnivores, and will eat anything from rodents to berries, not to mention the discarded remains of a fast-food order. In cities, they tend to elude detection by turning strictly nocturnal, often building dens in quiet alleyways or parking garages.
“Humans have killed millions of coyotes, but this is a species that’s adapted by moving in right next to us, their main predators,” said Stanley D. Gehrt, a wildlife ecologist at Ohio State University who describes coyotes as “humbling animals.”
While ranchers and farmers are often more than ready to have someone go after coyotes on their land, some urban hunters say they get a very different reception, and have to tread carefully.
“Knock on doors in neat street clothes (not your hunting camo) and explain your interest in hunting coyotes,” Tom Carpenter advised fellow hunters in Outdoor Life magazine. To win homeowners over, Carpenter, who lives near Minneapolis, also suggested promising to hunt only at dawn or dusk to avoid cyclists and joggers, and when dealing with especially reluctant people, to offer to use a crossbow instead of a firearm.
“To do this,” Carpenter said, “you need to make a public-relations play.”
Murphy, whose day job is police chief of Gahanna, a suburb near Columbus, calls himself an unapologetic coyote hunter. A decade ago, he started a side business, Wildlife Balance Solutions, catering to homeowners who want to rid their land of nuisance animals like raccoons, muskrats and skunks.
“But the most challenging adversary we have in these parts is the coyote,” Murphy said. Coyotes can run at speeds of up to 40 mph, he noted, and are known to occasionally eat household pets like cats or small dogs.
Trading his police uniform at the end of his work shift for head-to-toe camouflage, including a balaclava, Murphy selects from an array of bait that he keeps in a refrigerator in his garage, with names like Sullivan’s Last Lunch and Selected Gland.
He takes a rifle from his safe, grabs a plastic deer-fawn decoy and a device that mimics the squeal of a dying rabbit, and loads the gear into his pickup. He also brings a silencer for the rifle, to avoid alarming residents with the sound of gunfire.
Murphy set up his equipment on a recent afternoon in a clearing outside a shed where he and a taxidermist friend skin their prey and employ flesh-eating beetles to clean the skulls. He made a few calls with the rabbit-squeal device. Then he waited, and called some more, and waited, and called yet again.
“No ’yotes today,” he said with a disappointed shrug, the kind that just about every hunter has made at one time or another.
Some urban hunters go after coyotes just for fun, but when Murphy spots a coyote, he sees dollar signs. Coyotes in Ohio and points east can weigh as much as 50 pounds, and their tanned hides can fetch as much as $100 apiece depending on market fluctuations. Coyote fur is used to trim garments like the popular Canada Goose line of parkas and jackets.
“We’re waking up to the realization that coyotes are in our cities to stay,” Murphy said. “And since that’s the case, their fur is a renewable resource. I have no qualms about killing as many coyotes as I can.”
Coyotes have a fearful reputation, but opponents of coyote hunting say the threat they actually pose to humans has been greatly overblown.
Most coyotes do their best to avoid direct contact with people. Documented human fatalities from coyote attacks have been rarer still in recent decades, including a 3-year-old girl in Glendale, California, in 1981, and a 19-year-old musician, Taylor Mitchell, who was mauled in Nova Scotia in 2009.
“Coyotes are complex sentient beings with individual personalities,” said Camilla H. Fox, the founder and executive director of Project Coyote, a conservation group. “This doesn’t mean that aggressive coyotes don’t exist, but we need to learn how to minimize conflicts in our cities, instead of making things worse,” she added, pointing to measures like securing garbage cans and keeping dogs on leashes in areas where coyotes may roam.
Moreover, biologists say that urban coyotes actually benefit humans by eating rodents like rats, which can spread disease, and by culling feral cats, which prey on songbirds.
“The coyotes among us provide an opportunity to live next to an animal indigenous to North America whose roots go back 5 million years,” said Dan Flores, a historian who explored the species’ evolution in his book “Coyote America.”
“This is a gift,” he emphasized, “to be reminded that we still live in a world that’s wild.”