Biologists describe coyotes as the toughest, most adaptable creature roaming North Carolina — a pointy-eared predator enjoying a success story that few other creatures can boast.
Until 1988, they didn’t exist in the state unless someone imported them for sport hunting. But in a little more than 20 years, coyotes have roamed into every county in the state, swimming to the barrier islands until they ran out of land to invade.
They sometimes make unpleasant neighbors, killing sheep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, chasing dog walkers in Raleigh, trotting across beaches in Nags Head. But even though they rarely attack humans unless rabid, coyotes are hunted and trapped in rising numbers.
Between 2016 and 2017, that total reached an estimated 51,905 animals — a 29 percent increase over 2010-11, when the state began keeping track, according to the state’s 2018 Coyote Management Plan. This prompted a question from Glenn Morris, an N&O reader and avid outdoorsman in Raleigh, who called the kill numbers “staggering and incredible.”
“Coyote killings at the average of more than 400 per county per year would have made some papers somewhere,” he wrote in an email. “I am curious about what is genuinely known about coyote numbers in the state. I am perfectly content with an admission that it is unknowable.”
Here is what we found out about this pervasive but still very elusive predator.
How many coyotes are in North Carolina?
Nobody knows. No data exist.
Coyotes are almost impossible to count, said Colleen Olfenbuttel, black bear and furbearer biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. They range over wide territory very quickly. Even more challenging: When the coyote population grows thin in one spot, more animals rush in to fill the gaps. When their numbers drop off, coyotes can bear larger litters of pups to compensate.
If the state ever counted, Olfenbuttel said, the numbers would be inaccurate by the time it was finished. But with all territory occupied, the coyote population seems to be leveling out rather than growing.
“I think we’re saturated,” she said. “They’ve been successful in filling in all the gaps.”
How many are killed?
There is no coyote season. For the most part, state law allows you to shoot a coyote any day of the year. All you need is a hunting license.
According to the state, the majority of people who kill the predators are “incidental” hunters, meaning they set out to take deer and happened upon a coyote. A few hunters track coyotes specifically, Olfenbuttel said, because they pose such a challenge.
“They’re very alert,” she said. “They’re very aware of their surroundings. Any odd smell.”
Adding to the thrill of the chase, North Carolina allows nighttime hunting for only two animals: feral pigs and coyotes.
But those annual kill numbers — 45,568 hunted, 6,337 trapped — are little more than a good guess.
Is that a lot? Consider the same figure for raccoons, Olfenbuttel said: more than 100,000 a year.
The state gets its coyote data from surveys taken by hunters. While a hunter must report taking deer, bear and turkeys, information about coyote kills is voluntary. The margin of error on the 45,568 coyotes killed by hunters is 27 percent, meaning the total could be 12,000 coyotes higher.
And even though the hunting totals have risen dramatically for coyotes since the state started counting in 2010, they have remained consistently in the 45,000 range in the last few years.
Do the hunting numbers reflect the size of the overall population? Not necessarily, Olfenbuttel said. More coyotes are killed in the Piedmont counties than the mountains or the coast. The likely reason: More hunters.
Why kill a coyote?
To the best of the state’s knowledge, no non-rabid coyote has ever killed a person in North Carolina.
Since 1970, only 367 coyotes have attacked a human in the United States or Canada, the state’s plan said. To compare, 800,000 dog bites in the United States require medical attention every year.
In its plan, the state describes lethal action — especially bounties — as ineffective. If 60 percent of a coyote population is removed from a specific area, it can rebound inside of a year.
Rather, it recommends targeting specific problem coyotes.
Trapping permits are available for landowners who suffer coyote damage, and as the state’s plan notes, “Private landowners may shoot coyotes in the act of depredating at any time.”
But the incentive to trap is also fueled by a market for coyote fur, which Olfenbuttel described as positive because the killed animals are not going to waste.
How to get along?
Coyotes’ success comes in part from their ability to survive on any food, whether deer fawns, sea turtle nests, bird seed or household garbage. In its Coexisting with Coyotes guide, the state emphasized education and outreach as the cure for human-coyote friction.
▪ Keep pets indoors.
▪ Fence yards.
▪ Secure trash with tight lids.
▪ Clear fruit trees and bird feeders.
▪ Wave arms, make loud noises or throw small objects to ward off coyotes.
But with an animal so prone to wandering and so skilled at nosing its way into new territory, nothing is certain. With a nod to coyotes’ fictional but more lethal fur-bearing cousins, the state offers this warning in its plan: “There is no silver bullet.”