Coyotes Have Moved into Parks Across the United States — Now What?

April 6, 2018, Feature, by Richard J. Dolesh

2018 April Feature Coyote on roof 410

The coyote has been celebrated and reviled in American history for centuries. On one hand, the coyote is regarded as a trickster, a lover, a magician and a prankster that has special power to affect the course of man’s events. The coyote spirit is respected, if not revered, in many Native American cultures, and the lessons it teaches are valuable to man, if sometimes painful to bear. In some cultures, the coyote is a spirit guide that can enjoy causing mischief and willfully mislead people, but it is also viewed as a spirit that can impart wisdom and knowledge.

On the other hand, the coyote has been seen as a dark predator that ghosts through the night, preying on lambs and fawns and even on your pets. For many ranchers and farmers, the coyote is a predator that causes untold economic damage and one that learns how to avoid every deterrent or trap that might be deployed to catch him. Some USDA wildlife specialists say that coyotes are smarter than just about any predator you might encounter, and they can adapt to any environment.

Coyotes (Canis latrans) have been present in the American West and Southwest for an astonishingly long time, perhaps more than a million years. However, it is only over the course of recent decades that they have spread eastward and southward throughout the United States, moving into cities and suburbs and inhabiting parks, stream valleys and even densely developed urban areas. According to Professor Stan Gehrt of Ohio State University, a wildlife ecologist and respected coyote research biologist, they are so widespread now that they can be found in every large metropolitan area in North America.

Coyotes are an apex predator (occupies the top of a food chain on which no other animals prey), that has found a home in urban environments, especially in urban and suburban parks, and they are here to stay. “They are widespread and doing pretty well in most urban areas,” says Gehrt. “They have a higher survival rate and even a higher reproductive rate than in rural areas. The city acts as a refuge for them.”

Accept or Control?
So, what are park and recreation agencies to do? Should they regard coyotes as a dangerous pest and attempt to eliminate them from their parks however they can, or should they accept that coyotes are performing an important ecological function, and therefore, follow a policy of live and let live?

Coyotes, perhaps more than any other suburban and urban predator other than mountain lions, have inspired fear in certain communities. Some people fear having such a predator freely roaming about their neighborhoods and parks, and they want them gone even by lethal means. Others have gone beyond fear and loathing to acceptance and tolerance. They have come to understand that coyotes are not the threat they have been portrayed to be and that they are quite beneficial to urban ecosystems. And, to the surprise of many people, experience has shown that coyotes can live side by side with humans and their pets pretty much in harmony.

Camilla Fox, founder and director of Project Coyote, a San Francisco-based advocacy organization, says, “For those not accustomed to having a predator in their midst, coyotes make some people nervous.” Project Coyote, which she founded about 10 years ago, works on “promoting compassionate conservation and coexistence between people and wildlife through education, science and advocacy.” Fox says they approach advocacy from a science-based perspective, which is critical to show how to safely and responsibly deal with coyotes in urban environments.

“Coyotes are here to stay,” says John Kanter, senior wildlife biologist for the National Wildlife Federation. “They are well-established in urban locations now, even in the densest of urban areas. In some ways, they are like crows — social, smart and adaptable.” Should people fear them? “They should not,” Kanter says. “People should take sensible precautions living in proximity with coyotes. There are many things you can do to avoid conflict, such as not feeding pets or other animals outdoors, and keeping pets close and under control when you are outdoors.”

Coyotes vary in appearance and size, but one sure field mark is their large, conspicuous ears that are most often seen as upright and alert. Coyotes generally breed in the late winter and have pups in just over two months. The pups venture out of the den about a month after birth and run free by mid-summer. The coyote family stays together until fall, and the young can breed by their first winter. Food habits of coyotes are extremely varied. They will feed on rodents and small mammals, including smaller carnivorous predators such as cats, rabbits, deer, fruits, vegetables and even carrion. Coyotes have proven to be highly adaptable in all environments.

The human dimensions of dealing with wildlife is a subject that is of keen interest to wildlife managers, as well as observers of human social behavior. Tolerance and acceptance of carnivores and predators are becoming a well-studied subject by researchers working in wildlife biology and ecology. There is a growing recognition of the value of predators in ecosystems, especially urban ecosystems, and the economic and environmental impact they may have is important to any consideration of managing public lands and open spaces.

Assessing impacts of carnivorous predators range from how well they keep invasive, exotic and pest species in check, to the issue of human and pet interactions that cause humans to fear them, which leads to demands for action to control such predators. There are few places where tolerance of wildlife is more tested than in urban environments, where human/wildlife conflicts can happen frequently.

“When coyotes first appear in urban areas, there is a large measure of fear, sometimes fed by the media and social media,” says Fox, “but with proactive education, fear is reduced, and there is much more acceptance and appreciation.” She details how the city of San Francisco agencies, working with nonprofit partners, public lands managers and state wildlife officials, have developed strategies to educate the public and eliminate the sources of human/wildlife and pet/wildlife conflicts.

“Our problem is not so much direct contact with coyotes. It is more about people seeing coyotes in our parks,” says Chris Matthews, division director nature preserves and natural resources for Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation in North Carolina. “We had a coyote observation reporting line, and we learned that coyotes are everywhere within our jurisdiction, including the densest downtown areas.”

“Coyotes get a bad rap,” says Matthews. “We used to get a lot of calls, but it is much less now. Sure, there are certain times of the year when there are more sightings, such as when they are breeding and when pups are born, and then when the young strike out on their own. But most people have come to accept the presence of coyotes,” he explains, “especially after they realize they are not wolves. Coyotes are very intelligent and very observant. They get used to people just as you get used to having and seeing wildlife in your parks and living near you.”

Evie Kirkwood, director of St. Joseph’s County Parks near South Bend, Indiana, says they have documented coyotes in every one of the parks in their 1,300-acre system, but interactions with humans have been minimal. In fact, she says, “Ninety percent of the public does not even know coyotes are in their parks.” Their staff is trained and prepared to reply to questions and concerns. She notes, however, that for a variety of reasons, including state regulations and a lack of qualified personnel, their staff does not trap coyotes — that is strictly the function of state wildlife personnel or state-authorized trappers. Kirkwood notes that park staff does not refer coyote complaints to commercial trappers for control by lethal trapping. “One thing I learned from Stan Gehrt of OSU,” Kirkwood shares, “is that when you trap a coyote, you will not be done with coyotes. The void will be filled by other coyotes sooner or later.” Fox, Gehrt, Kanter and others with knowledge of coyote population dynamics emphasize this point. “If you remove established coyotes from an area, they will be replaced and very quickly, either from local populations or transients traveling through their territories,” says Gehrt.

Heading Off Conflicts
Conflicts with pets are one area of legitimate concern for pet owners and park managers. Dogs that are off-leash or those permitted to roam outside of their owner’s supervision can come into conflict with coyotes, especially during breeding and “pupping” season. Matthews cautions people to modify their own behavior as much as their pets. Dogs should not be allowed off-leash in parks where coyotes are present and during seasons that coyotes are active.

If you encounter coyotes, whether or not you are with your dog, you should not run. Instead, make noise and make yourself “big” by spreading your arms, opening your coat, if you’re wearing one, and yelling. If you have a small dog, pick it up and just slowly back away. Do not run. Remaining alert and aware of your surroundings always is a good practice.

Coyote/Dog encounters can be a source of conflict. “It depends on the size and personality of the dog,” says Gehrt. Experts agree that fenced, off-leash dog parks are not a source of dog/coyote conflict, but free-roaming dogs outside their owners’ control can be. Kirkwood says that St. Joseph’s County has a leash law and their rangers practice positive reinforcement with owners who are allowing their dogs off-leash. Most local jurisdictions, including Mecklenburg County, have a leash ordinance as well. “The problem is not so much dogs off-leash or on-leash,” says Matthews, “but more a matter of personal control and keeping dogs in sight.”

Fox says that park agencies can take effective action when a known den is located during breeding season. An agency might put out sandwich boards or other signs to let the public know to take extra care during this time.

All experts agree, proactive education about coyotes is a must. Having a single, knowledgeable point of contact is helpful as well, according to Matthews. Shannon Pederson, a wildlife biologist who is a lecturer and student adviser at the University of Maryland, says there are benefits to having coyotes serve as an apex predator, but there are also responsibilities that go along with that service. “We need to develop firm regulations and a societal ecological conscience. No feeding or taming of wildlife should ever be accepted, especially of the intelligent and ‘wily’ kind,” she emphasizes. 

Wildlife researchers collectively agree that conflicts can occur when dealing with wild predators in a largely human environment. However, managing that conflict is key to successful coexistence. This is especially true when benefits outweigh the costs. Gehrt says there are times when lethal control may be necessary for an especially aggressive animal that is an obvious threat to health and safety of people, but such occasions are extremely rare.

Live and Let Live
Nearly two decades ago when Gehrt and his team started their long-term study of the impacts of coyotes in urban environments, people wanted to do everything they could to get rid of coyotes, including trapping and killing them when they were found. However, despite all the measures employed against them, coyotes were successful in outwitting every control measure tried. “As time goes on where humans and coyotes live side by side,” Gehrt says, “people become generally tolerant and favorable.

“Native Americans got it right about the Trickster mythology,” Gehrt continues. “In spite of all our efforts, coyotes are able to change people’s attitudes without people even being aware that they are changing their minds and learning to accept them.”

Kirkwood says that while their park personnel may be successful in educating people, they haven’t had as much success with coyotes. During the winter, St. Joseph’s County Parks staff members spend a substantial amount of time and effort grooming their highly prized cross-country ski trails. They make significant efforts to educate hikers and dog-owners not to disturb the groomed trails. However, without fail, they regularly find that coyotes defecate right in the middle of the trails, and they have yet to figure out how to educate the coyotes.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives