Wildlife biologist says passive management, not hunting, best way to manage population
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — During her decade of tracking coyotes on Aquidneck and Conanicut islands, Numi Mitchell has discovered humans have a lot to learn. The pervasiveness of Canis latrans — Latin for “barking dog” — in Portsmouth, Middletown, Newport and Jamestown can largely be attributed to people’s carelessness with food and their compulsion to feed wild animals.
Since 2004, when Mitchell began studying local coyote behavior, she has found an Aquidneck Island council member who was feeding coyotes, believing that would keep them from eating neighborhood cats; a gentleman who fed coyotes subs; an elderly woman who was feeding some 100 feral cats, not knowing much of the “kibble” she was leaving out was actually being devoured by coyotes — most of the cats were then eaten by the coyotes when the woman moved on; and Newport residents who left chicken carcasses out, across the street from a playground, to attract coyotes.
Coyotes eat whatever is easy, Mitchell told an audience of 20 or so people during an Aug. 20 presentation at Newport Vineyards. Without the direct or indirect help of humans, the wildlife biologist said coyotes dine on woodchucks and field mice. She noted that 20 percent of the coyote diet, especially for pups, is fruit such as blueberries.
But once coyotes get a taste of human food, that’s when the problems start. “Coyotes eat deer, but they’ll also whack neighborhood pets,” Mitchell said. That happens when they begin to associate the presence of humans with food. “They won’t eat pets if there’s no subsidized food from people,” Mitchell said, “because they wouldn't be that bold.”
The Narragansett Bay Coyote Study was born out of one pet’s mauling by a coyote. After Aquidneck Island resident Diana Prince’s dog was killed, she contacted Mitchell about how to exterminate the island’s population of coyotes. However, once Prince's anger subsided and Mitchell had explained coyote behavior, the Prince Charitable Trusts decided to fund a one-year study. Mitchell’s study is now entering its 11th year.
Coyotes were first documented in Rhode Island, in Warren in the 1960s, and are now found in all parts of the state except Block Island. They first reached Aquidneck and Conanicut islands in the mid-1990s, according to Mitchell.
The Narragansett Bay Coyote Study tracks, with expensive collars and equipment, the local coyote population to develop science-based coexistence and management strategies. Mitchell noted that the study — and her work — aren’t pro or anti-coyote. She said the program is “straight science.”
CoyoteSmarts, in partnership with the study, is a public-information initiative of the Potter League for Animals, The Conservation Agency, Rhode Island Natural History Survey, Aquidneck Land Trust and the Norman Bird Sanctuary to address the growing presence of coyotes in Jamestown and on Aquidneck Island and to educate humans to coexist with these wild animals.
The mission of the group is to work with municipalities, local police and school departments, and state agencies to raise public awareness about coyotes, encourage best management practices and promote effective strategies for keeping pets, families and communities safe.
Coyotes are a native species, according to Mitchell. She said they are hard to catch, and clever, creative and opportunistic. Their numbers and range across North America are growing, she said, because the wolf population has been “blasted away.”
Their numbers also grow when large amounts of food are provided to coyotes intentionally or unintentionally by people. These “easy pickin’s” create coyote problems — and problem coyotes.
Mitchell said the most effective way to reduce human-coyote conflict is to reduce the animal’s food supply. The more food available, she said, the more pups they have and the smaller the territory they have to defend, which results in more coyotes per square mile and more risk of contact with humans.
Coyotes live in a family group, usually in packs of seven to 10 members, and typically take ownership of 7 or so square miles, according to Mitchell. She has counted an Aquidneck Island pack with 21 members.
Seven to eight packs roam Aquidneck Island and there are another three to four in Jamestown, according to Mitchell. As for the total number of coyotes on the two islands, she said she doesn't really know.
“We don’t call them wily for nothing,” Mitchell said.
However, unlike deer, which will keep breeding until they starve, coyotes manage their population. Female coyotes will have fewer pups if the pack is stressed by a lack of food.
On Aquidneck and Conanicut islands, improperly discarded livestock carcasses and roadkill, especially deer, dragged into the woods are easy pickin’s for coyotes. Their numbers grow.
Mitchell said she found a dumping ground of dead animals, including sheep and deer, on Peckham Brothers Quarry property in Middletown. It was feeding a large coyote pack that lived in a small territory.
She showed a nighttime video of a coyote pack feeding on cow carcasses not properly buried on a Jamestown farm. She said a coyote pack can feed on a deer carcass for three to five days.
“An area that would be able to handle one pack can now hold three,” she said. “With easy food resources, coyotes don’t increase their territory.”
Feeding pets outside, unsecured trash cans, poorly managed compost bins/piles, fish guts left on piers, docks and rocks, and restaurant food scrap left out in the open, as a Middletown pig farmer has done, help create “super small coyote territory,” Mitchell said. She said these practices, which can include doughnuts left behind at a construction site, also make coyotes see people as food providers.
“As soon as coyotes get a taste for these subsidized food sources, they go for it,” Mitchell said. “The pack could have gone ten years without coming in contact with people, but now they are no longer afraid of people.”
No lethal solution
Removal of coyotes by lethal means — though it may be necessary for some problem animals — doesn't control their population, according to Mitchell.
“Shooting them isn’t effective, because they are impossible to get rid of,” she said. “You can’t get rid of them with lethal control. Passive management is the most effective method.”
Lethal methods such as hunting, trapping or poisoning, especially in neighborhoods, are generally more dangerous to pets and the community than to the coyotes, Mitchell said.
She also noted that eliminating an entire group of coyotes, rather than solving the problem, simply creates a vacuum that other coyotes will quickly fill. Also, if a resident pack is removed, she said, it will likely be replaced by transient coyotes, which are often even less desirable.
In Rhode Island, you can hunt coyotes year-round, but relocating them is illegal.
Mitchell said recreational hunting of coyotes is fine and keeps them fearful of humans. However, a kill campaign, she said, accomplishes nothing. She said eliminating subsidized food sources can drop pack numbers by two-thirds.
Ecosystem and community impact
Coyotes play an important ecosystem role. As the top predator in Jamestown and on Aquidneck Island, the presence or absence of coyotes has a major impact on the surrounding biological community, according to Mitchell.
They help control pests such deer, rodents and geese, and with some 40 feral cat colonies in the four island municipalities, coyotes help keep those numbers under control.
And while coyotes can benefit bird populations by preying on many of the small mammals that eat birds, their young and/or their eggs, it's possible coyotes also kill piping plovers, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Mitchell is studying coyote impact on the islands’ natural environments.
Coyote attacks on humans are rare and seldom result in serious injuries, according to Mitchell. Only two deaths have ever been documented — a toddler in California in 1981 and a 19-year-old woman hiking alone in Nova Scotia in 2009. Children are more at risk than adults, and attacks are more common in urban areas where coyotes have lost their fear of humans thanks to intentional or unintentional feeding.
Coyotes are sometimes mistaken for dogs and may at times act like dogs. They’ve even been known to beg for food. Despite this disarming behavior, however, they are a wild and dangerous animal, especially when they’ve lost their fear of humans, according to Mitchell.
Coyotes run with their tails down and dogs run with their tails up. Coyotes are more adaptable than wolves and have learned to thrive near humans, especially the ones who feed them.