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Coyotes are increasing in numbers around cities, towns and farms

Monday, September 02, 2002

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Alien species sightings were all the rage this summer, even before "Men In Black 2."

(Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette)

Asian bighead carp appeared in the Ohio River; giant hogweed sprouted along the region's roadsides; the voracious, ambulatory, northern snakehead fish from China was spotted in Maryland and, of course, North Carolina-native Krispy Kreme doughnuts materialized at every local arts festival.

But the latest invasive species to show its pointed snout in Pittsburgh is the wily coyote.

Amy Van Horn reported seeing one of the elusive, golden ghosts in the wooded ravine behind her home in Westwood last month, the first such claim from a Pittsburgh neighborhood, according to the state Game Commission.

"It was dinner time. We saw it outside the dining room window. It was too big to be a fox and it wasn't any dog," said Van Horn, who watched the animal for more than five minutes. "We matched the animal up to pictures of coyotes on the Internet."

If she is right in her identification -- and there's no reason to think she isn't despite the absence of an Acme-brand jet pack strapped to the animal's back -- Pittsburgh would join many other cities in the country on the growing list of coyote habitat.

Confirmed sightings of Canis latrans have been made in Philadelphia; the Bronx borough of New York City, Toronto; Portland, Maine; Charleston, W.Va., and most major metropolitan areas of the West, including Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego.

In 1999, a coyote was captured while hiding under a taxi on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, a main downtown thoroughfare.

Last year, one ran across a Philadelphia school yard when children were out at recess. In Boston's northern suburbs, pet owners are now advised to keep a close watch on their cats and small dogs because of coyotes preying in the area.

"I wouldn't expect to see one at PNC Park," said Joseph Merritt, resident director of the Carnegie Museums' Powdermill Biological Station in Westmoreland County, "but in the peripheral area, there very well could be coyotes."

Not only could they be in suburban Pittsburgh, they are. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, coyotes have been reported in every county in the state, including several sightings in Allegheny County.

"They're everywhere," said Tom Hardisky, a Game Commission wildlife biologist who estimates the population statewide at more than 20,000. "You may not have seen them in Pittsburgh before, but they're all around the city."

A change in habitat

That wasn't always the case. When the first European settlers entered what is now Pennsylvania, it was wolf country. There were no coyotes.

"Wolves liked the woods and coyotes kept to the open prairies," Hardisky said. "But the settlers killed the wolves and cut down the trees to open up the land for farming and, however unintentionally, for coyotes."

The coyotes, one of the first invasive species, were in turn shot by the farmers to protect livestock, and their numbers declined, too.

The coyote roaming Pennsylvania and throughout the eastern United States today is larger than the variety found west of the Mississippi River. Hardisky said that's because they cross-bred with gray wolves in eastern Canada a century ago when the numbers of both species were low.

Coyotes belong to the dog family and are gray, black and brown, sometimes resembling a German shepherd in coloring. Their snouts are slender and their ears are large and erect. Unlike a dog, they keep their straight, bushy tails pointed down.

The eastern coyote -- the adult males average 40 pounds, almost twice the size of their prairie home cousins -- has spread throughout the eastern United States, including areas of the southern Appalachians where it has never lived before. They started showing up in small numbers in Pennsylvania again from the 1930s through the 1950s, with the population rising steadily from the 1960s.

"Trappers started to harvest them in the 1960s and called them 'coydogs' because they were bigger and thought they had crossbred with dogs," Hardisky said. "But the take was really low, less than 100 a year."

Those coyote harvest numbers have gone up steadily, along with the interest in hunting and trapping them. In 1990 the number of coyotes reported killed by hunters and trappers was 1,810. By 2000, 11,654 had been shot and trapped.

There is no closed season for coyotes and no limit on the number a hunter or trapper can kill. They have no natural predators except for wolves or mountain lions and those species were long ago hunted to extinction in the state.

The secret to surviving

The key to the coyote's survival is its amazing adaptability. It can live anywhere, from the most remote regions of the countryside to the parks, cemeteries and ravines of the city.

A common misconception is that urban sprawl is bringing humans into more conflict with coyotes, but the opposite is true. There are more coyotes and some are moving into and thriving in cities and towns because of the easy availability of food.

"The coyote is attracted to suburbs and cities by cats, dogs, mice, rats -- whatever is easiest to catch," Hardisky said.

Coyotes in the wild feed on squirrels, moles, voles, groundhogs, rabbits, carrion, insects, fruit, berries, birds and their eggs, fawns and the occasional adult deer, but all coyotes are opportunistic omnivores. In urban areas, around small towns and rural farms their diets also can include sheep, cats and dogs, pet food, road kill, mice, rats, garbage and even vegetables raided from backyard gardens. Researchers poking through their scat have found watermelon seeds.

According to state Game Commission records dating to 1988, coyotes have killed an average of 71 sheep or lambs a year in Pennsylvania, with a peak kill of 105 lambs and sheep in 1995.

"They love sheep," Hardisky said, while agreeing that the number of sheep killed by coyotes is insignificant when compared to the 94,000 sheep that graze in the state.

"The small farms where the ewes and lambs stay close to the barns don't seem to have a problem, but the bigger farms with a lot of sheep can lose track of their animals and that's when they have problems."

Since 1988, coyotes also have been prime suspects in the deaths of 51 dogs and 139 cats.

"Usually those pets were killed when they were let out in the back yard," Hardisky said. "Some dogs have been killed while they were chained to their dog houses. Coyotes can be pretty aggressive. They don't like another dog-like animal in their territory."

According to Game Commission records for 2001-02, none of those pets were taken in Allegheny County."

"There's normally plenty of wild prey out there, so people don't have to be inordinately concerned about leaving their schnauzer out in the back yard," said Mel Schake, a spokesman in the Game Commission's southwest regional office.

And while there are reports of coyotes attacking children in some western states, Hardisky said no human injuries or deaths have been attributed to coyote attacks in Pennsylvania.

Despite more hunting of coyotes in Pennsylvania, there is no indication their numbers are down. In fact, recent research shows coyote females respond to hunting pressure by producing larger litters.

As a result, we'll probably be seeing more coyotes in Pennsylvania's rural fields and urban canyons.

Wildlife biologists say people can coexist with coyotes peacefully by following some simple rules. First among them is to never feed coyotes, because that breaks down their natural fear of humans, making them unusually aggressive.

People living where coyotes have been sighted should secure garbage cans so they can't scavenge for scraps and bring in pet food dishes in the evening.

"We will never have a big impact on the coyote population again," Hardisky said. "We won't eliminate them so our best option is to learn how to live with them."


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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