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Dangerous neighbors

10/18/2007

The other morning as my wife drove off to an exercise class, she saw a coyote in a neighbor's yard. It didn't run away, even though her car passed within 10 yards of the animal.

A quarter mile away lies the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the southern end of an unpopulated open space that stretches 30-some miles north to Point Reyes National Seashore. At times, a pack of coyotes swarms into our neighborhood at night, howling like a drunken biker gang. Those are wild coyotes looking for garbage and pets, but wild enough to retreat long before the sun rises.

The coyote my wife saw, however is habituated, having lost its normal fear of people. Roaming the streets and yards in broad daylight, sometimes napping under a neighbor's porch, I've seen him trotting along the shoulder of Highway 1 in midday, unafraid of passing cars.

About a year ago, a neighbor left the kitchen door to the patio open while his young son, at the time sitting in his highchair, was eating breakfast. The neighbor was washing dishes and looked up to see the coyote slipping into the kitchen and approaching her son. He screamed and ran toward it. Canis latrans fled. It may well have been the same animal.

In a number of communities across the U.S., children have been attacked by coyotes, some rabid, some not. (For more information, click here.) It is a growing problem, especially as deer herds explode and coyotes find they can live in urban areas.

What to do about the urbanized coyotes is a hot issue. In most rural areas, coyote hunting is a popular sport. Some communities even hold contests to rid the area of them. (For additional information, click here.)

Here in Marin County, if the coyote had stood its ground, growled, and did not flee, you can call the Department of Fish and Game and they send out a game warden, who has the authority to dispatch a wild animal which "menaces" a person, that is, if the warden can then find the offending anima in question.

Otherwise, Marin has a non-lethal coyote control policy, detailed here.

If a coyote is habituated, and not menacing people, the Humane Society will then come out and try to scare them away with loud noises, etc.

According to the Point Reyes Light, a newspaper covering western Marin, coyotes re-entered Marin in the mid-1980s after the poison 10-80 was banned. They had been gone for 40 years, during which time poison, denning and trapping by DA Wildlife Services had kept them out. Since the coyotes' return, they have put half the sheep ranches in West Marin out of business and the remaining ranchers have serious losses from coyote predation.

Nonetheless, the official county policy is to "co-exist" with coyotes, further explained here.

Ranchers use llamas and guard dogs to protect sheep, both of which are expensive, and not always effective — coyotes are not dumb. They quickly figure out what they can get away with, then get to it.

All across America, communities are having similar problems with coyotes (click here and here for additional information) and experimenting with various kinds of strategies to control them.

One positive note on the urban coyote dilemma: Urban coyotes do help control nuisance Canada geese. That is, as long as nuisance Canada geese are around. But if not, then what does Wile E. Coyote turn to for dinner?

Coyotes are one thing, but what about co-existing with predators like mountain lions? When Arizona Fish and Game tried shooting mountain lions that entered urban areas, they were flooded by complaints, leading them to try tranquilizing them and relocating them. But when one of the released cats subsequently attacked and killed a child, the department got sued by the child's parents. Is there any successful solution?

Some people say human deaths by habituated predators are "acceptable." While that's a point to debate, let's get the facts straight: In the 20th century, 59 people in North America were killed by bears and 17 were killed by mountain lions.

Deer and moose also attack and kill people, but not to eat them. Deer kill about 150 people a year in the US, most are a result of collisions with vehicles. (For more information, click here.)

Attacks, especially during the rut, are not uncommon: A cow moose with a calf may be the most deadly critter of all.

Coyotes attack people, but seldom kill.

What about wolves, an even larger canine predator?

When I was a student at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources in the 1960s, we were told no person in North America had ever been killed by wolves, and that re-introducing wolves might mean losing some livestock, but there was no danger to people. The story of Little Red Riding hood was a fable, not based on scientific fact, we were told.
The "big bad wolf" was a good guy. Bring him back.

Wolf reintroduction has been going on for decades, quite successfully in many places, and as wolves move into the Northern Rockies, economic losses to ranchers have been growing rapidly. (For further information, click here.)

Ranchers have been compensated for wolf-killed livestock, but the image of the wolf as non-attacker on humans continued.

All that changed when on November 8, 2005, when Kenton Carnegie was attacked and killed by wolves at North Point Landing in Saskatchewan. That particular pack of wolves had become habituated to a garbage dump, quickly learning human scent no longer held any fear for them.

Carnegie's death was followed by several more serious wolf-human attacks in Canada.

According to noted Canadian wildlife biologist, Dr. Valerius Geist, coyotes and wolves become habituated to people when the wild food supply declines. They start looking for food around homes, and if no one challenges their foraging, they become bolder, leading to coyotes and wolves pursuing livestock and pets as well as hunting for garbage. These behaviors take them progressively closer to people, and the fear of people declines. When food becomes scarce and there is no threat from people, the wild canines start testing people, closing in on humans, until an attack is made.

Geist personally experienced this pattern near his home on Vancouver Island when a pack of wolves moved into his neighborhood. They devastated local deer and progressed through the stages of habituation until people were being tracked like prey. The only way to stop them was to shoot them.

Some people argue that we are intruders. This is the homeland for predators and they have a right to be there, even it's an urban area. Please recall throughout the thousands of years that wolves, coyotes, bear and mountain lions have been in North America, mutual predation with humans has been the norm, resulting in predators keeping a safe distance from man. The appearance of a human without lethal intent is something very new to the animals in question, and when this happens old behaviors change, sometimes with tragic results.

I have friends who are on both sides of this issue: Some think every coyote and wolf should be shot on sight. Others assert we should let them live where they want, without harm, introduce them to their old haunts, and learn to co-exist.

In between these two positions, I think, lies the best answer — wilderness should have a representation of native species. But in crafting wildlife policies, we need pragmatics, not romanticism.

When wild predators habituate to people, these animals cease being wild, but still have the same high-protein diet requirements they've always had, and must either choose to find new territory or have humans become fair game if nothing else is available.

Feeding them is not an option, because they quickly conclude humans are not to be feared.

Wile E. Coyote, Baloo the Bear, and the Lion King are fantasy animals, folks. "Bart" the bear who starred in "The Edge" (1997), gave a convincing performance of how a hungry bear treats humans: lunch.

Werner Herzog shot holes in romanticism of wild predators, in his film "Grizzly Man" (2005), the story of Steve Irwin-wannabe Timothy Treadwell, who tried to make his audience believe wild grizzlies were friendly, big, warm cuddly Teddy bears — until one killed and ate both him and his girlfriend.

The truly sad thing about that film was that Park Rangers then killed the bear.

Wild animals, including predators, are inspiring, even awe-inspiring, under the right circumstances. As co-existence is explored, let us not forget that romanticizing them is an insult to the animals themselve, as well as stupid.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.