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Controlling metropolitan coyotes

4/3/2006

  • For more on coyotes, read Doug Leier's new column, "Trapping matters."


    To some people, coyotes are the comic and lovable loser Wile E. Coyote versus the intelligent, swift and always victorious Roadrunner.

    For hunters, the coyote is a sly and regal predator worthy of a nimrod's best efforts to settle the crosshairs upon.

    In the American West, the song dog is the twilight melody, a pack animal and survivor whose lonely, howling chorus equates to the very "wild" essence in wildlife.

    But to others, the coyote is a mangy outlaw capable of taking down a beloved pet or even potentially harming a child, a wild despot whose very presence in and around suburbia cannot and will not be tolerated.

    Talk about your identity crisis — would the real coyote please stand up?

    One man who knows something of the coyote's public-relations dilemma is Rob Erickson, a 52-year-old Chicago-area resident whose boyhood love of trapping has turned into his life's work as a wildlife-control specialist.

    "They're a very unique animal, there's no doubt about it," he said.

    Erickson, whose interview was heard Saturday on "The Outdoors Show on ESPN Radio" show with Tommy Sanders, has more than 35 years of experience to bring to the table when the conversation turns to 'yotes.

    In recent days, many coffee-shop conversations have centered upon the coyote, especially following the sighting of a song dog in New York City's Central Park earlier this month.

    That incident sparked a fanfare of media coverage and public interest before the coyote was eventually captured and relocated to a wildlife center.

    But what proved to be a bemusing news item in the Big Apple is more of an ongoing dilemma in other municipalities, like Chicago.

    "Last year, I believe there were more than 300 complaints of coyotes in urban areas (of Illinois)," Erickson said, noting the numbers seem to be steadily on the rise this year.

    "I've never had so many coyote calls as this (year); I've got one suburb after another on a waiting list.

    "But, hey, I guess it's job security."

    Erickson, whose Wildlife Control Technology company puts out a bi-monthly magazine by the same name, emphasizes that for every coyote that is seen in and around suburbia, many others are not.

    "They can live around urban areas for three years and people don't even see them," Erickson said.

    How can that be?

    "They're considered to be generalists," said John Davis, an urban wildlife biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex area.

    "They can eat almost anything and live almost anywhere; the very nature of this animal is one that is extremely adaptable," he added.

    "In fact, if you look at nature, the coyote lives in almost any type of habitat that you can imagine."

    Keep in mind that the simple presence of coyotes in urban settings doesn't necessarily mean that there will be an unpleasant encounter between a coyote and human beings, pets, or domestic poultry and livestock.

    "Sightings don't mean that you have a problem animal," Erickson said. "But once they cause problems, they're not going to stop causing problems."

    Erickson has found that problem coyotes are at times dominant animals, territorial critters that he says control a turf of three to five square miles.

    He says that's versus a subdominant coyote moving through a territory of up to 25 square miles, a fact that he believes accounts for most non-problem song dog sightings in urban areas.

    In addition to dominant coyotes aggressively prowling their turf against invaders, Erickson believes that other problem coyotes result when an animal has been compromised in some way through disease, injury, hunger, etc.

    That's where the skills that he learned as a boyhood trapper come in quite handy.

    "I've been trapping since I was 14 years old," Erickson said. "When I was a kid, we didn't have any money, so I trapped for fur. I actually bought my family Christmas presents with my fur money."

    As late as the late 1970s — with prime pelts fetching as much as $125 — Erickson was able to use such money as a down payment on his first house.

    Today, Erickson says that the fur market has collapsed and that trapping is not politically correct — or even legal — in some states.

    Even so, when a wild animal begins to cause problems, that's when municipalities and private citizens begin to look for someone with the skills of a modern day Jeremiah Johnson.

    "Now, when a problem comes, people see that trappers are much needed and that they perform a vital service to the community," Erickson said.

    "I get a lot more (money) now because I charge dearly for my services."

    Once a problem animal has been identified, Erickson must then go to work to study the lay of the land, where the coyote is making its living, and what potential human/pet interaction issues might exist.

    After such homework, the Chicago-area specialist is then able to go to work to solve the problem.

    His options include trapping and relocating coyotes; trapping and euthanizing the coyote; or simply hunting the coyote until a shot opportunity — where such an option is safe and legal — is presented.

    "It's challenging to capture them," Erickson said. "It's really difficult to get an animal that roams a five square mile area to step onto something the size of a 50 cent piece."

    While trapping and relocating is an option that Erickson does use at times, such methods are difficult because of legal constraints and finding a landowner willing to allow a problem animal to be released on their property.

    Such efforts fail many times since coyotes often are hit by cars as they feed and work their way back towards their former turf.

    "What we've found is that when we catch an animal, take it out of its home range, and put a radio collar on it and let it go, it's a waste of the collar," Erickson said.

    Erickson maintains that other control measures are often necessary because nature isn't quite like movie screens and TV sets often portray it to be.

    "A lot of times, people don't understand what happens out in nature," Erickson said.

    "They don't see coyotes with their eyes scratched out with mange or animals infested with fleas and ticks or (animals that are sick)."

    Which brings the question: Are wild coyotes dangerous to humans in urban settings?

    Most of the time, the answer is no.

    But while such incidents are rare, they're not unprecedented either.

    In fact, a report on the National Geographic's Web site indicates that in California, as many as 160 coyote attacks and dangerous incidents have been documented in the state over the past thirty years or so.

    The report also indicates that those figures include one fatality some two decades ago.

    While Erickson isn't aware of such a tragedy in his part of the world, he worries that it could happen one day.

    "If you have a toddler outside screaming and crying, well, that sort of sounds like a rabbit in distress call," Erickson said.

    "Anything that is in distress sounds like groceries to them (coyotes). It hasn't happened yet, but it could."

    Even so, Davis indicates that the presence of urban coyotes shouldn't produce paranoia either.

    He indicates that when coyotes act aggressively toward human beings, it's often because they were inadvertently trained to do so.

    Case in point according to Davis was the previously mentioned fatality in California.

    That's an event that the TPWD biologist says was preceded by actual hand feeding of coyotes in the area, a practice that Davis describes as "crazy."

    Another way that coyotes are inadvertently conditioned to be aggressive toward humans is the tendency of some people to run away in fear at the sight of a coyote.

    "A coyote is sort of like a two year old child — if he gets away with something once, he'll probably try it again," Davis said.

    Keep in mind that neither Davis nor Erickson is ready to declare all out war on the coyote however.

    Davis points out that domestic dog bites and attacks pose a significantly higher risk to human populations each year than coyotes do.

    "Our job is to understand that coyotes are wild animals," Davis reminds.

    Erickson agrees.

    "I don't really have a fondness for them, but I do respect them," he said.

    "They're an extremely intelligent mammal, they're very hard to trap, they always keep you guessing, and (sometimes), they have to be managed."

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