March 25, 2011
Coyote population continues to rise
Take precautions to protect animals from predators
By Josette Keelor
If you haven't seen or heard a coyote yet, you might not be the only one, but chances are your friends or neighbors in the area are conscious of their presence.
Coyotes have been in Virginia at least since the early 1980s, said Mike Fies, a wildlife research biologist with the Verona office of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
"As they became established, their populations grew rapidly," he said. "They seem to be still growing slowly in the western mountains."
Chad Fox, wildlife biologist with the United States Department of Agriculture's Christiansburg office, has noticed an increase of coyote populations in recent years. "I think based on the data that we've seen, yes, definitely there is an increase," he said. That number should level off soon, he said, especially in western Virginia.
"They've reached their carrying capacity in some counties," he said, explaining that competition for food and shelter eventually will control populations.
This is good news for residents like Anne Watkins, of Berryville, whose livestock was attacked by coyotes last week.
"Wiped me out!" she said in an email recently, explaining that coyotes killed three of her sheep and five goats, four of whom were pregnant.
The coyotes were so quiet, she and her house dogs were unaware of their presence, she wrote.
Jake Grove, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in the animal science department in Clarke County, has noticed coyotes more recently in the immediate area.
"We've probably had them here for about five years or six," he said.
Devastating as a coyote attack can be, most people, even if they hear them howling at night, probably will not see them.
"They're just not tremendously visible," Fies said.
"The group that's affected the most [is] farmers," he said.
"They adapt well to almost any type of habitat," Fies said. "They adapt well to people. They're just very adaptable, period, but they can thrive real close to [where people live.]"
Those living in rural areas might be concerned for their house pets, but Grove and Fies said there's little to worry about if you take precautions.
Most domestic pets in the area would not have an opportunity to deal with coyotes, Grove said.
"They're not out in the middle of a field as an inviting target like the lambs are," he said. Lambs and goat kids are easy targets because they're young and weak, he said. Plus, they're outside at night, asleep. Cats and dogs tend to be inside at night when coyotes are likely to strike, he said.
Fies believes that in more rural areas, coyotes would have enough food options not to need to pursue pets.
Cats and small dogs can become a target for coyotes, he said, "But it's usually in these urban settings, and it's usually those that have become accustomed to [people.]"
Coyotes are more prevalent among residences in the spring, Grove said, because it's cub season, and mother coyotes are looking for food to feed their young. Likewise, spring is also lambing season, perfect for coyotes looking for food outside the forest.
Grove said Virginia is actually central to two types of coyotes along the East Coast.
"We're kind of the last stop on their migration," he said.
One strain migrates from the north, through Pennsylvania and Michigan; the other strain is smaller in size and migrates from the south. He said the southern strain is probably more common in southern Virginia, but southern coyotes can also pop up in the northern valley.
"They all come from that south-central [United States] location," he said of both strains.
So what can you do to protect livestock from coyotes?
"The biggest thing that people can do is make sure that they don't encourage [coyotes]," Grove said. Coyotes, like bears or other wildlife, will enter residential areas if attracted by food. Coyotes probably won't look for human food, he said, but something as simple as a bird feeder can attract animals that will attract coyotes, he said.
According to Grove, guardian animals like dogs are one of the best defenses against coyotes. Not just any dog will do, though, he warned.
"They're not pet animals," he said of dogs that best protect against coyotes. Working dogs trained as protectors can be lovable, but their job is to provide a defense against predators.
Akbash or great Pyrenees are some working breeds he suggests, but he encourages residents to make the decision that best suits their needs.
"Some use llamas or donkeys," Grove said. "Which[ever] works best in your situation."
Baits and traps can work too, but they also pose a risk to other wildlife and to family pets, he said.
Fies suggests bringing in a professional if dealing with a coyote nuisance.
"There's actually federal funds available for a tracker," he said, because coyotes fall under the category of nuisance animal. Areas covered by USDA wildlife services can call the USDA to remediate a coyote problem, he said.
The USDA's website, www.aphis.usda.gov, offers information about contacting the USDA to help with wildlife management.
A combination of federal appropriations and cooperator-provided funds supports the program, the website says.
Vigilance and education, though, are good ways of handling the coyote population.
"They're not going anywhere anytime soon," Fies said.
"Most of the folks that are dealing with it are getting an idea of what works," Grove said.
"The guardian animals are going to be the most practical."
To contact the USDA's Virginia Wildlife Services, call the Moseley office at 804-739-7739 or go online to www.aphis.usda.gov and click on Wildlife Damage Management.