When a trio of coyotes chased after a man walking his dog in Raleigh’s Schenck Forest earlier this month, he sought refuge on a raised metal grate and called police.
As the 911 dispatcher waited on the phone with the man for police to reach him, she mused that she was familiar with coyotes – and surprised they had chased him.
“I see them a lot by my house,” she said. “And they just run from me.”
The dispatcher’s comments reflect a new reality in North Carolina’s urban and suburban spaces. Biologists are seeing more and more coyotes in and around cities, but the shy animals rarely confront humans. There has never been an unprovoked coyote attack on a person in North Carolina.
Colleen Olfenbuttel, a biologist who studies coyotes for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said the canines’ wariness makes them difficult to track, but urban and suburban sightings reported to the state have risen since biologists confirmed coyotes were living in all 100 North Carolina counties a decade ago.
Camera traps, which photograph animals that pass by, showed similar results in the Triangle. Roland Kays, a zoologist at N.C. State University, said urban sightings have increased, and he sees roughly the same number of coyotes in urban and suburban areas as rural ones.
It is a continent-wide phenomenon, according to Stan Gehrt, a professor at Ohio State University and expert on urban coyotes. The rabbits and rodents that are common in cities contribute to a food supply that can be richer than in rural areas, and cities are a “huge refuge” from hunters, Gehrt said.
“The combination of those two provides a great environment for them to live in,” he said.
Human activity sometimes makes a coyote’s search for food easier, according to Paige Warren, who studies biodiversity in urban areas. Heavily watered and fertilized lawns and golf courses are perfect habitat for some coyote prey, like rabbits, said Warren, a North Carolina native and professor at the University of Massachusetts.
On the links
Early efforts to track coyotes in the Triangle indicate that the canines are taking advantage of those green spaces. Kays said that he saw an especially large number of coyotes at a suburban country club in Raleigh, where they can hunt freely when golfers go home for the day.
Camera traps in backyards also demonstrated the coyotes’ skittishness around people; they were rarely seen in yards, even ones where people kept chicken coops, Kays said.
They are in suburbia, but they are not in people’s backyards.
Roland Kays, N.C. State zoologist
Coyotes tend to live and raise their young in “edge habitat,” Olfenbuttel said, green spaces on the outskirts of more urban areas, such as NCSU’s Schenck Forest where the man and his dog were chased.
Those green spaces are common in the Triangle, and have become more common in urban areas nationally, as city governments work to provide opportunities for residents to experience nature. Gehrt thinks those spaces may be contributing to the growing populations; while tracking coyotes in Chicago, he found that they spent a great deal of time in parks and nature preserves.
Chicago’s coyote population is one of the only ones tracked carefully enough to estimate. Gehrt estimates it at between 2,000 and 4,000 coyotes, which he believes to be larger than in most cities.
But the coyotes are known to be wary of humans, so much so that they are especially challenging to trap, because they pick up the human scent on the traps, according to Drew Edwards, who owns North Carolina Wildlife Removal, a company that removes nuisance animals.
He got into the business by trapping coyotes, but he has since stopped offering the service. In the city, where many of the animals reside, trapping isn’t feasible because pets get caught in the traps.
“The challenges of urban coyote trapping are just over the top overwhelming,” Edwards said. “Either Fluffy the cat or Rover the dog is going to find that trap before the coyote does.”
Hunting, a threat to coyotes in rural areas, is almost completely removed in urban ones.
Jonathan Cawley runs a service that connects hunters to property owners who want coyotes removed. There are no restrictions on coyote hunting, except in five eastern counties, where it can take place during the day to protect the endangered Red Wolf. Cawley said that the service works primarily with farms and ranches, because dispatching hunters to suburban calls is too risky.
Cawley fears that a lack of hunting will lead to more aggressive confrontations between coyotes and humans.
10 Number of coyotes removed from Raleigh-Durham International Airport in the past three years.
“I think if they become more and more comfortable with people, and they realize they’re not being hunted, I think we’re going to have more problems with them,” Cawley said.
So far, though, there has not been a significant rise in hostile encounters between coyotes and humans, according to the Wildlife Resources Commission.
“We’ve seen an increase in sightings of coyotes in our urban and suburban areas,” Olfenbuttel said. “But that hasn’t led to an escalation in aggressive behavior.”
The coyote is often described as an invasive species, but Gehrt said coyotes have moved east naturally – a territory expansion, not an invasion. And some biologists believe the canines can have a positive effect on ecosystems. Kays said coyotes are eating animals like deer that the wolf used to eat in North Carolina, partially filling its role.
The same is true throughout the Eastern United States, according to Oswald Schmitz, a biologist at Yale University who directs a lab that studies predator-prey interactions.
“The coyote’s becoming a good functional substitute for the kind of wolf that used to exist in that part of the world,” Schmitz said of the Eastern U.S.
Schmitz is a leader in a field of biology that stresses the importance of predators for balance in an ecosystem, a shift from a traditional focus on plant diversity as the primary indicator of ecosystem health. His lab investigates the way that predator activity, like hunting deer, can protect plant diversity.
He notes that eastern coyotes are larger than their western counterparts and sometimes hunt in packs, which they never did out west.
Researchers at NCSU who tracked fawns near Fort Bragg in 2011 and 2012 found that coyotes killed a significant number of fawns, indicating that they have a “profound impact” on white-tailed deer populations in the state, which have long been free from significant threat from predators.
Coyotes are also a threat to pets, especially cats and small dogs. But Gehrt found pets to be a very small part of the diet of coyotes in Chicago, and Olfenbuttel noted that dogs are more likely to be attacked by other dogs than coyotes.
Biologists aren’t sure of the long-term impacts of coyotes on the region, but they know the wily animals are not moving out of the Triangle.
“Coyotes are here to stay,” Olfenbuttel said.
Spencer Parts: 919-829-8933