Blame it on Wile E. Coyote. Or the fact that like kudzu, Canis latranse is considered to be an invasive species. (In other words, not from around here.)
Whatever the basis, coyotes have built a pretty solid reputation in North Carolina – and it’s largely negative.
“There is some psychology to it, cultural suppositions around coyotes as being somehow dangerous,” said Jessie Birckhead, extension biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “And don’t forget Wile E. Coyote. He was pretty tricky.”
Despite the reputation, coyotes are mostly harmless, Birckhead said.
“They are part of our natural environment now,” she said. “There is no cause for alarm.”
Many who garden for wildlife have never seen a coyote on our property, but sooner or later, that is likely to change. More than 1,000 coyotes are roaming within or near the borders of Wake County, although specific numbers are difficult to come by since coyotes are shy, nocturnal animals that stay out of sight much of the time.
Coyote adults may weigh between 25 and 40 pounds – larger than native foxes, which top out at about 15 pounds, and slightly smaller than the native red wolf, which now exists in nature only in five Eastern North Carolina counties.
Red wolves – like cougars and other large predators – once proliferated in our region as the top canid predator, but they were effectively shut out of their natural habitats as land was cleared for development and livestock farmers became aggressive about eliminating potential threats to their income. With wolf and cougar populations more or less eliminated, coyotes have enjoyed a predatorial dominance in North Carolina for many years.
Coyotes today perform many of the same ecological functions as the wolf. They keep mice, squirrels and other small mammal populations in check. They also can help cull deer from overpopulated regions. But they also pose a threat to other small animals such as chickens, small goats or sheep – and, yes, the occasional free-roaming small pet such as a dog or cat.
To address these concerns, Birckhead has instituted a series of coyote conflict management workshops this summer. The next one is scheduled for 5:45 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Iredell County Extension Center in Statesville, about a 2 1/2-hour drive west of Raleigh.
The workshops were created to help rural residents understand the ramifications – legal and otherwise – of confronting coyotes on their farms or land. But much of the advice is also relevant to urban and suburban landowners.
“We advocate anything you can do to discourage them from coming into your yard,” Birckhead said. “That can include never leaving pet food outside, as well as keeping pets secure and on leashes. Also, it’s best to prevent coyotes from finding places on your property for their dens. Close off the crawl space under your deck and eliminate brush piles in the yard.”
Wildlife gardeners may find this advice to be a greater-than-average challenge. Small mammals, such as rabbits, voles and mice, are among the creatures inhabiting a wildlife garden, along with fruits and berries, which the omnivorous coyote also enjoys.
“Coyotes are fantastic at adapting to live in human-dominated landscapes,” Birckhead said. “They are able to squeeze out an existence living in backyards and greenways, city and state parks. They are very savvy, like gray foxes and red foxes.
These wildlife species have adapted to live where humans are. Most in our area have existed around people their whole lives.”
Coexisting with a broad spectrum of animals means looking beyond their reputation and understanding the role that each plays in the circle of life.
When people act irresponsibly, leaving out food, even bird food, that might tempt a hungry predator, harm can come to animals such as coyotes, who are only doing what nature tells them to do to survive.
“It leads to these interactions where the fault is placed on the animal,” Birckhead said. “When you think about these things, in extreme cases, like black bears, it can lead to tough decisions. The best thing you can do for wildlife is not to unintentionally feed them. Good preventative work keeps conflict form happening in the first place.”
Reach Renee Elder at firstname.lastname@example.org.