Coyotes figured out how to survive in the city. Can urban Coloradans learn to coexist? – The Colorado Sun

Posted: January 6, 2020 at 6:43 pm

It happened quickly and quietly. In fact, it was the silence that made David Brosh wonder why the familys two white Westies, taking a quick bedtime potty break, hadnt barked to come back inside.

On a frigid Sunday night in early December, he let them into the tiny yard behind their Parker home. It was dark until Chloe and Chuffys presence activated the motion-sensor floodlights. Beyond the 42-inch split-rail fence, webbed with wire fencing so the dogs wouldnt get out, a large swath of open space near Newlin Gulch had been blanketed by a recent snow.

Minutes later, when David stepped outside to check on the dogs, a coyote turned to meet his gaze just as it trotted into the shadows beyond the reach of the floodlights. It appeared to have Chloe, all 17 pounds of her, in its mouth.

David grabbed a flashlight, hopped the fence and followed the tracks as far as he could into the gulch, until they mixed with lots of other tracks and disappeared into some low brush. No sign of Chloe. When he returned to the yard, he saw 25-pound Chuffy lying in the snow, seriously injured. He called to his wife, Mardee, that they needed to get to the vet.

From there, the hours unraveled in a nightmare of tenuous hope for Chuffys survival from his neck wounds and the continued search for Chloe that yielded little more than a trail of reddish splotches in the snow.

Daylight revealed what looked like tracks from two coyotes in the Broshes yard. Meanwhile, surgery on Chuffy ended with a hopeless diagnosis. The couple made the decision to put him down.

They were the heart of our family, Mardee says, and got me through so many difficult times. You know, you get really attached to your dogs.

On top of their sorrow, word of similar coyote encounters throughout the rapidly growing community southeast of Denver heightened the couples concern. Theyve lived in their house for more than eight years and perhaps twice have seen coyotes venture this close until suddenly, reports of sightings, and particularly attacks on dogs, have spiked.

Wildlife experts say the situation reflects a recurring phenomenon, a cycle of coyote activity that ebbs and flows throughout the so-called urban-wildland interface and now, well into the urban core literally from Los Angeles to New York.

It does seem periodic, says Kristin Cannon, an area wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Well go several years where theres no issues, or very minor ones. Coyotes are pretty ubiquitous anymore, but as far as conflicts with people, and with pets, that seems to flare up every few years one place or another. Because conflicts are so common, its hard to quantify.

Many communities along the Front Range have an official coyote management plan, which largely defines levels of interaction with the animals and prescribes at what point, and how, action may be taken to mitigate problems.

Attacks on humans tend to be the tipping point. And while lethal removal looms as an available tool, the emphasis remains on education and adapting human behavior. That strategy reflects the reality that coyotes, despite historical campaigns to eradicate them, have been a fixture on the continent for upwards of five million years.

And theyre not going away. As longtime coyote researcher Dan Flores, author of Coyote America, succinctly puts it: Resistance is futile.

The flurry of coyote activity in and around Parker marks yet another chapter of a centuries-long conversation surrounding the uncommonly adaptable creatures, one that ranges from todays real-time online postings to historical writings that freighted it with cultural meaning.

Its been an animated dialogue, in every sense.

Early periods of enthusiastic hostility toward the animal have dissolved into more recent arguments for coexistence. European explorers scouting the West initially didnt know what to make of coyotes, or even what to call them. From that uncertainty, the coyote eventually became a fixture in American culture, for better and worse.

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In many Native American cultures, the coyote appears as an avatar for humans. Tales handed down through generations employ it as a four-legged metaphor, precisely for the way it holds a mirror to human behavior. Native to North America, the coyotes howl, Flores contends, is our original national anthem.

In early America, the disparagement of coyotes grew from the cross-pollination of politics and culture. Flores traced references to coyotes in 19th-century American literature and settled on Mark Twains humorous excerpt from Roughing It in 1872 as the launching pad for what became coyotes dismal reputation.

Twain writes, in part: He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it.

By the 1920s, even Scientific American inserted the coyote as the shifty trickster-villain in a contemporary political allegory in which it argued that good Americans, if they spy one, should shoot it on sight for patriotic reasons because the coyote is the original Bolshevik.

Much disdain for coyotes originated within the livestock industry, whose assets run afoul of predatory animals. And that, Flores says, led to an agency of the federal government, then called the Bureau of Biological Survey, seizing on the opportunity to brand itself, in the early 20th century, as the antidote to predation. It proved an effective strategy to guarantee congressional funding.

Colorado played a pivotal role in the extermination efforts that followed. The Eradication Methods Laboratory, which designed and manufactured the means to kill massive numbers of mostly wolves and coyotes, began producing strychnine in Albuquerque. But in 1921 it moved operations to Denver where, Flores writes in Coyote America, it would go on to perfect an amazing witchs brew of ever more efficient, ever deadlier pesticides.

Even the eradication campaign came with what Flores calls a concerted PR effort to demonize coyotes. Powered by a series of pre-packaged stories from the Biological Survey, he says, major publications all across the country ran fictionalized accounts that cast certain nuisance animals, including the coyote, as Al Capone-style gangsters. Those who would destroy them were cast as heroic G-men.

Its a Frankenstein story thats of our own making.

Wolves were essentially wiped out in the U.S. by 1925. But coyotes, despite lacking a public relations campaign of their own, more than survived attempts to snuff them. They flourished. So what did they have that wolves didnt?

In simple terms, coyotes can live in groups, when its advantageous. But when its not, they can disperse into pairs or even solitary individuals and scatter across the landscape, making them difficult to locate and eliminate.

Wolves are pure pack animals, and hunters discovered if you can track one of the animals in a pack, you can use its scent to prepare bait and get every one in the pack, Flores says. But coyotes dont have the same pack adhesion. Thats the single advantage over wolves that allowed them to survive.

So the eradication strategy backfired. Not only did the campaign not wipe them out, but it triggered colonization. When coyotes sense their numbers dwindling, the number of pups in their litters grows larger a phenomenon called compensatory breeding.

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Coyotes migrated all over the country and grew comfortable in urban areas, where they face no natural predators, no hunters shooting at them from helicopters, no leg traps or poisons. Plus, urban areas attract plenty of smaller animals, like rabbits, squirrels, rats and mice, that provide a ready food source.

Its a Frankenstein story thats of our own making, Flores says.

But by the early 1960s, a cultural icon took a stand for the lowly coyote. Walt Disney, whose catalog of film and television productions adopted ecological advocacy in its infancy, in 1961 produced an hour-long feature for Walt Disneys Wonderful World of Color, a show that already had a reputation as appointment TV. The animated piece was called The Coyotes Lament and marked the first of six TV or movie features Disney would produce on coyotes.

And while that was happening, you had the Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon, Flores notes.

While not exactly heroic, Wile E. Coyote presents at least a sympathetic image of the coyote. Hes humiliated by the Roadrunner at almost every turn, and his efforts to employ technology fail miserably. But he never gives up.

After a four-decade campaign to brainwash Americans, suddenly the pop culture movement portrayed the coyote in a different light, Flores says. That makes a lot of difference.

Considering their tarnished reputation, coyotes ability to adapt and survive has been nothing short of astounding.

For all the talk of how human development has encroached on animals natural habitat, the coyote has turned the tables. A recent story in National Geographic reported that coyotes actually have increased their range by 40% since the 1950s, can be found in every state except Hawaii, have become established in Central America and are expected to appear soon in South America.

Mary Ann Bonnell, a ranger for Jefferson County open space, has published research on coyotes and stars in widely viewed YouTube videos on wildlife that make her an in-demand source on dealing with urban arrivals. She can almost track their territorial expansion simply by picking up the phone.

Currently, its the D.C. area and New York City, she says of the calls seeking advice. Here in Colorado, we already went through that whole arc: In the early 2010s people were going, Heres this apex predator thats moved into the neighborhood, what does that mean? What happens to my dog? All these burning questions, all valid. Those residents have a quick learning curve to figure things out and make changes and understand what it means to have coyotes in the community.

Meanwhile, researchers in Colorado continue to keep tabs on coyotes everything from their interaction with humans to their diet and genetic clues that may offer insight into their adaptive behavior. But whats going on when we see an uptick in coyotes encounters with people and unusually fearless behavior that can include attacks on pets?

Stewart Breck, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agricultures National Wildlife Research Center based in Fort Collins, also specializes in urban coyotes. He has a good idea whats going on. In fact, he sees two things.

First, urban coyotes tend to be bolder and more explorative, he notes. Breck drew this conclusion from research comparing coyotes in Denver to those that inhabit rural areas, which confirmed the behavior pattern. Similar studies have been repeated in many areas around the country.

Currently, its the D.C. area and New York City. Here in Colorado, we already went through that whole arc.

Second, researchers have identified certain problem individuals that appear periodically in urban environments. These bad actors tend to be responsible for most of the unusual conflicts with people. Studies on this phenomenon kicked into gear locally 10 years ago, when multiple people in Broomfield reported being bitten by coyotes. In 2011, coyotes in the area also bit three children.

That got a lot of people asking the same question youre asking, Breck says.

Cannon, the wildlife manager for CPW, says that when the first child was bitten in Broomfield, CPW made an effort to lethally remove the culprit. The problem is that coyotes tend to look the same and live in social groups, making it difficult to pinpoint the problem. When the second child was bitten, CPW responded again and eliminated more coyotes and repeated the process again after the third biting incident.

Finally, we were able to catch up with the correct coyote and the behavior stopped, Cannon says. Its hard to say why theyre behaving that way, if there was one or more than one, but it took multiple operations on our part before we eliminated the one. It wasnt for lack of trying, but its difficult to lethally manage coyotes in an urban setting.

Despite the troubling incidents, Broomfield has maintained a fairly conservative, hands-off approach with regard to coyotes that leans on measures like education and sometimes closing down open spaces if issues arise leaving removal as a last resort, Cannon says.

In 2009, Greenwood Village responded to a years worth of sightings and attacks on dogs which culminated with a teenage boy fending off a coyote in a local park by hiring Jay Stewarts Animal Damage Control to kill the problem animals. The subsequent media attention activated animal rights advocates, and their protests ignited what Stewart recalls as a fiasco that demonstrated the strong feelings humans have on both sides of the coyote issue and aborted his efforts.

Later, Stewart notes, a client who lived adjacent to the park where the well-publicized attack on the boy had occurred told him that people in the area had felt sorry for the coyotes and had been feeding them. Its not unlike the problem that has vexed wildlife authorities in other areas, where the same type of human behavior also has emboldened many bears, which then become so comfortable around people that they have to be put down.

Things go south when that happens, Stewart says. Even though it was a bad thing in the park with that kid, that problem was human-caused. Because they were being fed, it probably walked up to that kid thinking it would get something.

Stewart gets far fewer calls about coyotes than he used to because many jurisdictions have developed coyote management plans that emphasize education and hazing the animals as a primary means of dealing with them. When they need removal, they turn to state and federal agencies to handle the situation, or even local police.

Greenwood Village, which draws on Bonnells expertise, fine-tuned its coyote management plan over the past several years. It has seen a remarkable decline in incidents, says Cmdr. Joe Gutgsell, who oversees coyote management for the citys police department.

Since 2013, Greenwood Village has hosted an annual community meeting to familiarize residents with policies and recommendations for how to minimize coyote problems. It also has started a detailed reporting program that allows Gutgsell to chart location and frequency of incidents and, as a result, respond more effectively when necessary.

When circumstances do call for removal, Gutgsell says the police department has a selective and organized process that calls on two designated officers both firearms instructors to handle the problem. The city no longer contracts removal or relies on CPW.

Bonnell speaks at the yearly neighborhood meetings, and the city provides both printed and digital versions of an informational brochure that cover topics like normal coyote activity, leash laws that can help protect pets and admonitions against feeding wildlife.

We dont remove coyotes for being coyotes. We dont lethally control a coyote that becomes habituated to people and comfortable in urban neighborhoods.

While Gutgsell acknowledges that some of the recent decline in incidents may be due to simple luck and natural migration, the numbers over the past five years have been encouraging. In 2015, the city fielded 26 reports of coyote incidents involving pets, a number that includes both injuries and fatalities. When that number spiked the next year to 46, more than 100 residents showed up to the annual meeting, where they got a heavy dose of prevention education.

In 2017, the number fell to 20, then to five and finally, last year, to just a single reported incident.

There was no cause to remove any of the animals and only a few residents even showed up for the annual management meeting.

Bonnell calls it a model program, and notes that the city learned a lot from the 2009 debacle. She adds that communities in the Denver metro area that have taken advantage of templates offered for management plans (among others, the Humane Society of the United States has produced a sample plan) and that stress education tend to be best equipped to deal with coyotes as opposed to those that wait for a problem to emerge and then call Colorado Parks and Wildlife for help.

Coyotes are smart creatures and tend to work the system, she says. You have to be proactive. But because humans are hard to train, we usually dont do anything till something bad happens. Its hard to sell coyote education if nothing bad is happening.

CPWs Cannon notes that most plans she has seen respond to sightings with education or signs warning of coyotes presence. And some plans allow for lethal response when coyotes pose a threat or injure a person and often delegate that job to her agency.

We dont remove coyotes for being coyotes, she says. We dont lethally control a coyote that becomes habituated to people and comfortable in urban neighborhoods. And we dont remove coyotes that prey on pets. Theyre similar to its natural prey source, so its natural behavior for coyotes, unfortunately, and the onus is on the pet owner to supervise their pet when they live near coyotes.

While measures such as motion-sensor flood lights and even noisemakers like air horns are encouraged, especially for people living alongside open space or parks, the question of a homeowner using firearms to try to eliminate a problem coyote can raise legal issues. State law allows use of lethal force to prevent damage on your own property, but many urban jurisdictions have laws regarding discharge of firearms that could conflict with that method.

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For all practical purposes, its not an option, Cannon says.

The USDAs Breck adds that in most cases, elimination doesnt solve what people might think it will. Consider what experts call coyote math: 1 minus 1 equals 1. And the adage that holds: If you kill one coyote, six will come to the funeral. Targeting bad actors is one thing. Culling the pack is a pipe dream.

In light of that calculus, one helpful tactic is hazing, which involves non-lethal measures from making noise when coyotes become too comfortable to chucking rocks to intimidate them into shying away from humans.

Most coyotes in urban areas are not going to be a problem, Breck says. Theyll do what coyotes do, and youll hardly notice theyre around. The idea that we need to get in there and shoot them is not what Im recommending. That is not going to work, and not necessary.

On a national scale, coyotes still are eliminated, but primarily to protect livestock. Farmers and ranchers claim millions of dollars in economic losses. In 2018, according to the USDA, more than 68,000 coyotes were killed by a variety of methods. Nearly half were shot from either fixed-wing planes or helicopters. In five agricultural states, not including Colorado, more than 5,600 were poisoned with so-called cyanide bombs, a method re-approved for use last month by the Environmental Protection Agency (with some additional safeguards) over objections from conservation groups.

No coyote attacks on humans have been reported in Parker, according to police. But suddenly, neighbors throughout the area were seeing coyotes everywhere. And some exhibited unnerving behavior including additional attacks on dogs.

Parker police noted an uptick in sightings, but remained unaware of the dog deaths until the Broshes filed their report on Chloe. In fact, since mid-November, they have a record of just six calls for service involving coyotes five sightings and one dog fatality.

Meanwhile, a multitude of postings on the online neighborhood bulletin board Nextdoor warned when coyotes were spotted and reported incidents including attacks on dogs. Mardee says a neighbor filtered all the various accounts and counted 10 unique cases of dogs that were killed in the area in and around Parker.

That disparity with law enforcements records underscores the need for further public education, says Parker police spokesman Josh Hans. While law enforcement can post notices on Nextdoor, it isnt allowed to monitor the bulletin boards, so it relies on direct reporting from residents.

From the information reported to us, it doesnt make (coyotes) seem like an issue, Hans says. In the next month or two, we need to start getting some messaging out. Its great that people are letting their neighbors know so they can be watchful. But if theyre not telling us, we cant do anything about it.

In recent days, the Broshes installed video cameras outside their house in the hope of learning more about coyote activity. They would prefer a back fence higher than just 42 inches along their border with open space, but neighborhood covenants dictate the lower, split-rail style that leaves pets more vulnerable. They had the motion-activated flood lights installed, and always checked before letting Chloe and Chuffy loose in the backyard.

I dont want to have to worry about going to the mailbox and having to take pepper spray. I just want to be safe in my own neighborhood.

Mardee figures one or more of the coyotes from what appears to be a den in the gulch simply traced the fence line, checking the yards for possible prey. And when they got to mine, they just hopped the fence because my dogs were there. So we think theyve been actively hunting in the yards.

But her concerns run beyond her own loss.

Weve heard from other folks, people walking on the trail down here being harassed when theyre hiking with their dogs, which I can see because that den is very close to where the trail runs through, she says. And now people are saying theyre seeing them further up into the neighborhood.

Its not that I hate coyotes, she adds. We thought they were cool. I just dont want them in my yard. And I dont want them attacking people when theyre walking their dogs on the trail. I dont want to have to worry about going to the mailbox and having to take pepper spray. I just want to be safe in my own neighborhood.

Bonnell, the Jeffco open space ranger, conjectures that possibly a new pair of coyotes which mate for life moved into the neighborhood and were denning in preparation for a litter of new pups. And at least one is dog-aggressive, protecting territory by removing competition, she says.

The timing, if this has all happened in the last couple of months, makes sense, she adds. Right around the time we switch from daylight savings to standard time, you begin to see the dog awareness where coyotes are escorting dog walkers away from their den or even attacking and killing dogs. Theres an increase in conflict right around that time. Theyre establishing territory for the family thats coming.

CPWs Cannon empathizes with the frustration of people worried for their pets.

Theyre not wild animals, theyre family members, she says. And its extremely difficult when people are facing tragedy like that, for us to come in and say, Well, thats a coyotes natural prey source.

On top of that, she recognizes the inconvenience of having to constantly keep an eye on your pets, even on your own property, to ensure they dont fall victim.

I have dogs and a big backyard I like to let them run around in, she says. I understand what a burden that is, to think in order to protect your pet, you need to go out with them every single time and keep them on a leash. I just dont know that theres an alternative solution thats going to alleviate that. Its kind of a reality.

And so the conversation about coyotes continues. The interaction of humans and wildlife has become a hot area of research, and Joanna Lambert, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, has bitten off a considerable chunk almost literally.

Shes looking at what coyotes eat in different environments and how that may have changed their genetic makeup, which in turn might explain certain behaviors, particularly in urban environments. More precisely, her research examines whether there are particular genes involved with the digestion of carbohydrates in human food.

Dogs evolved the capacity to extract energy from starchy carbs, in a way wild wolves dont, Lambert says. Were looking at whether theres evidence of the same process in coyotes. A lot of other questions asked about coyotes are very difficult to distinguish between whether the behaviors were seeing are the result of learned behavior or genetics. Its very complicated. Were tackling that problem from a slightly different angle, looking at the food part and if the genome has shifted toward human food.

Lambert also has two graduate students pursuing studies related to coyote-human interaction in the Denver and Broomfield areas. One seeks input from people who frequent local parks and open space about their perceptions of whether coyotes have become more aggressive, curious or bold. Another student is tracking whether coyotes are more or less likely to avoid humans when more humans are present such as during a busy day in the park.

None of the studies has yet been completed and published.

Cities in some ways represent a refuge from natural predators, from human hunters, Lambert says. But they also offer a whole new array of food sources. These can be anything from birdseed, occasionally human garbage, cats and small dogs. It could also be almost certainly the case that theyre eating other animals that have adapted to humans, like house mice and rats, urban animals. Thats part of the big question.

Were used to a culture where you swipe your credit card and a problem goes away. This is not one of those problems.

Coyotes have learned to read human behavior, explains Coyote America author Flores, noting that while coyotes have no fear in cities, where theyre not being hunted, their behavior can be much different in rural areas. If you see coyotes while driving in rural New Mexico, he explains, and then pull your car over, theyll sprint away from the car running in a switchback pattern an evasive maneuver learned because in such situations they can expect gun shots.

I encourage people to keep them wild, keep them thinking that were a little too weird for them to trust, he says. When I see them standing around and not moving, Ill raise my arms and shout, maybe throw a rock. Its good for them to be a little spooked rather than nonchalant.

By the same token, it can be helpful for humans to understand something about coyote instincts. From May until August, roughly, they have pups to protect. So if a coyote emerges from the bushes to escort a hiker and their dog away, following but not quite threatening, it likely means they approached too close to a den. Its happened to Flores in the canyon near his home while running with his 135-pound malamute.

Bonnells interest in coyotes was piqued before she took her Jeffco ranger job, when she was working in Aurora and came across people who essentially treated the wild canids as pets, even naming them as they trotted up to windows to touch noses with their house pets. So when she talks about basic truths about coyotes, arguably the most significant one isnt about coyotes at all. Its that humans are extremely difficult to train.

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Coyotes figured out how to survive in the city. Can urban Coloradans learn to coexist? - The Colorado Sun

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