The growing urban coyote problem and local management strategies

* This post is adapted from a longer article that can be accessed here.

Coyotes have been viewed as pests and a threat to livestock since American settlers first encountered them, and this hostility supported early government policies that usually focused on eradication. But despite decades of hunting, poisoning, and trapping programs, Canis latrans has proliferated and expanded its range, both geographically and ecologically. Once confined primarily to the plains and prairies of the West and Southwest, coyotes now inhabit urban, suburban and rural habitats throughout Alaska and the lower 48 states, as well as much of Canada and Mexico. In rural areas where larger predators such as wolves have been more successfully eradicated, coyotes have taken their place as apex predators, and in developed areas their intelligence and adaptability has allowed them to create new ecological niches in the urban and suburban landscape. “We consistently underestimate how adaptable coyotes are,” says Stanley Gehrt, one of the nation’s premier urban coyote biologists. “We’ve seen them sitting on the side of the highway. We think they’re listening and looking.”

Aside from their intelligence, urban coyotes are incredibly secretive and mostly escape human notice. Hundreds of coyotes roam the metropolitan areas surrounding Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and New York City, as well as many other cities, and they hardly ever bring attention to themselves.  Coyotes also play an important predator role in developed areas, culling populations of other nuisance animals like geese and rodents. But they can also prey on house pets, and while coyote attacks on people are still far less common than dog bites, problems with aggressive coyotes are becoming more frequent in many areas.

The increasing urban coyote problem has become a serious concern for local governments, and a variety of strategies have emerged to manage populations and deal with individual problem animals. Designing effective coyote control programs requires cities to understand and influence both coyote and human behavior. It also requires cooperation with federal agencies, like the USDA’s Wildlife Services division (which killed more than 80,000 coyotes in 2009), as well as state environmental and wildlife agencies. In New York, for example, local governments have to get permits from the state Department of Environmental Conservation for trapping and killing coyotes. This past April, the department refused to grant a trapping permit for Rye, New York, even though coyotes killed a dog and attacked two children there last year. According to department officials, coyote sightings are down to less than one per month, and that’s just not enough.

Urban coyote management can be especially difficult because hunting and trapping are prohibited in most cities and suburban areas, and because residents often oppose lethal capture techniques. Luckily, there are many steps that can be taken before lethal control methods become necessary, and some of these strategies are described below, including tracking and monitoring, public education, coyote management planning, anti-feeding ordinances, property management and weed control laws, and land use planning for habitat conservation.

Tracking and record keeping

Tracking studies are just beginning to reveal how coyotes fit into the ecological landscape of cities. Consider the following GPS maps, which show the radio-locations of two different alpha females in the greater Chicago area. The coyote in the top image, depicted in pink, stayed within a forest preserve more than 90% of the time, while the coyote in the lower image, depicted in yellow, lived in a downtown area and used only small patches of habitat (the pink locations in the bottom map depict a third coyote).

Tracking studies like this have helped researchers to conclude that most urban coyotes pose few threats to humans, and that the largest factor contributing to coyote problems is human feeding, whether intentionally or from sources such as unsecured garbage cans, outdoor pet food, bird feeders, and gardens. In Rhode Island, tracking data has even been used to pinpoint individual houses regularly visited by coyotes—and likely feeding sources.

Extensive data isn’t always necessary to deal with individual problem coyotes, but it can help inform broader, longterm strategies for coyote management, making it worthwhile for cities to maintain records on coyote attacks and other incidents, even if resources are unavailable for tracking studies. Some local governments have established online reporting systems or 311 services to collect this type of data.

Public education

Because of the relatively low numbers of problem coyotes in most urban areas, public education is often the most effective response to concerns about coyotes. And while coyote problems may be exaggerated by media reports, public interest in coyotes offers a valuable opportunity to educate community members about appropriate mitigation, prevention, and response behaviors that can decrease the risk of habituation and coyote nuisances.

Public education campaigns have emphasized the need to prevent intentional and unintentional feeding, as well as the importance of coyote “hazing,” which refers to behavior modification techniques intended to reinstill a fear of humans in coyotes that have become habituated to urban and suburban development. Hazing programs teach officials and community members not to back away quietly when they see coyotes, but instead to scare them by yelling, throwing things, or using noise making devices, fireworks, pepper sprays, or other deterrents.

In addition to feeding and hazing, public education campaigns have focused on child and pet safety measures, livestock protection techniques, and property management issues such as fencing and landscaping. An excellent source is the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has even produced a YouTube video about dealing with urban coyotes.

Coyote management plans and response protocols

Coordinating public outreach and animal control strategies in discrete coyote management plans can help wildlife managers to prepare for aggressive coyote incidents and set longterm management goals. These plans have been enacted by cities across the country, in varying levels of detail. Typically, they include an overview of coyote behavior and their history in the community, strategies for public education, information about hazing, definitions and response protocols for different types of incidents, and monitoring provisions. Other issues that have been included in some coyote management plans include provisions for intermunicipal cooperation, the disposal of road kill and livestock carcasses, and strategies to reduce populations of deer, feral cats, and other prey species.

A key component of any coyote management plan involves the procedures that should be followed in response to coyote attacks and other unacceptable aggressive behavior. Most wildlife researchers agree that widespread extermination programs will rarely be effective given the difficulties involved in trapping and shooting animals in urban areas and the tendency of new coyotes to move into the territories left open by removal programs. However, when specific nuisance coyotes pose a threat to people that cannot be resolved through hazing and other preventative measure, many coyote management plans call for targeted, lethal removal. Relocation is generally disfavored because relocated coyotes can cause problems at their release sites and are likely to return to their original territories. A few coyote management plans, however, have refused to adopt lethal control measures.

The coyote management plan established in Denver, Colorado, provides a good example for other cities. The definitions included in the plan are clear and create a common foundation for describing coyote-conflicts and providing appropriate responses. After a coyote issue has been reported, the Denver plan lays out specific protocols regarding the appropriate response and which state or local officials should be involved. As it explains:

Only specific animals will be targeted…. Trapping will not extend beyond one month. While the use of live traps are legal and do not require a permit exemption, they are proven to be ineffective at capturing a targeted coyote and generally will not be considered. Leg hold traps or snares will be used only as a last resort…. If trapping is necessary, Denver will use [USDA Wildlife Services] as the professional management division. If there is immediate danger that requires shooting, Denver will support and coordinate with [Colorado Division of Wildlife] enforcement officers….

The plan also contains a flowchart to better organize response protocols:

Anti-feeding ordinances

Because researchers have identified feeding as the largest cause of urban coyote problems, anti-feeding laws are a no-brainer. These ordinances apply to intentional feeding as well as the failure to secure outdoor trash, pet food, and similar food sources. And while they may be difficult to enforce, just having them on the books can help deter would-be wildlife feeders and encourage other people to report unacceptable feeding. A typical example is the wildlife feeding prohibition in Morris Township, New Jersey:

A. No person shall purposely or knowingly…feed, bait, or in any manner provide access to food to any wild animal or waterfowl in said township, on lands either publicly or privately owned. This section shall not apply to the feeding of farm animals.B. No person shall purposely or knowingly leave or store any refuse, garbage, food product, pet food, forage product or supplement, salt, seed or birdseed, fruit, grain in a manner that would constitute an attractant to any wild animal or waterfowl.C. No person shall fail to take remedial action to avoid contact or conflict with wild animals… after being advised by the Township to undertake such remedial action….

The ordinance provides an exception for bird feeders, so long as seed does not become an attractant for other animals, and failure to comply can result in daily fines of up to $500.

Property management and weed control ordinances

Coyotes can adapt to many types of urban development, but they particularly like dense landscaping and garden areas that attract prey animals such, as well as irrigated areas that provide a water source in otherwise arid areas. To minimize these attractants, local governments can enact and enforce property management and weed control ordinances that require properties to meet minimum landscaping requirements.

Land use planning for wildlife habitat conservation

Just as site-specific landscape practices can act as an attractant or deterrent to coyotes, larger-scale land use plans and development patterns can affect coyote populations and their interactions with people. As the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has acknowledged:

Urban and suburban coyotes . . . are symptoms of a broader issue. People continue to expand . . . into what used to be open range wildlife habitat, especially on the expanding fringes of large metropolitan areas. This is increasing the potential for encounters and conflicts between people and wildlife.

A report produced by Cornell University similarly stated that “in suburban landscapes, land-use patterns often necessitate coyote movement between patches of natural habitat interspersed in developed or residential areas. This type of situation… may create impacts that become management issues for parks and natural areas….”

In developing a habitat corridor plan, the Arizona Game and Fish Department reccommends that municipalities begin by identifying affected wildlife species and determining where crucial habitats exist. After this information has been collected, the municipality can delineate wildlife blocks and corridors, and these determinations can then be used to guide transportation, development, and conservation decisions. The maps pictured below, for example, show the relationship between urban development in Seattle and the locations of the city’s parks (dark green) and private open spaces (hatched green). One of the city’s top priorities for outdoor recreation and open space is to preserve wildlife habitat, and these maps are used along with other information to identify gaps and places where additional park land should be acquired.

Wildlife corridor maps included in park management or comprehensive plans are often advisory in nature, but some local governments have taken additional steps to conserve contigious habitat areas. In Shrewsbury, Vermont, for example, wildlife corridors are designated through a zoning overlay and “land development immediately adjacent to a Wildlife Corridor . . . shall be designed, sited, and undertaken in a manner compatible with the continued viability of the Wildlife Corridor.” For properties located within a Wildlife Corridor overlay zone, development is only permitted if wildlife impacts are minimized, the development is clustered in a group arrangement rather than a linear design, and the development is located as far from the Wildlife Corridor as possible.

General development and site plan requirements can also be modified to recognize the importance of preserving habitat and preventing potential conflicts with wildlife. Broomfield, Colorado, for example, has acknowledged that a “contributing factor [in coyote problems] is the reduction of optimal coyote habitat by encroaching development.” The city has recommended that code revisions be made to:

1) establish a specific submittal requirement…that would require that both public and private projects provide an environmental and wildlife assessment…; and2) design development review measures to promote practical layout of amenities and features in new projects to avoid potential conflicts with wildlife. These development review measures should include guidance on the placement of amenities such as playgrounds and dog parks so that these facilities are not immediately adjacent to wildlife areas where conflicts could be a factor.

As with any land use restrictions, ordinances restricting development in wildlife areas or requiring development mitigations must contain adequate standards. The Vermont Supreme Court struck down a local wildlife protection requirement in a 2008 case. As the court explained, “[t]he language of the regulations offers no guidance as to what degree of preservation short of destruction is acceptable under the statute. From a regulatory standpoint, therefore, [it] provides no guidance as to what may be fairly expected from landowners who own a parcel containing wildlife habitat . . . and who wish to develop their property[.]”

One response to “The growing urban coyote problem and local management strategies

  1. Pingback: Coyote southwest | Kemchoamerica

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