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Forensic tracking of coyotes helps identify food sources
August 17, 2015—In 2011, Middletown became the first Aquidneck Island community to adopt a wildlife “no-feeding” ordinance in response to residents’ concerns about the growing presence of coyotes. Four years later, Middletown is also the first community in the area—not to mention the state and possibly the nation—to make use of forensic tracking data to identify food sources that may be attracting coyotes.
Forensic tracking is a term coined by Dr. Numi Mitchell of the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study (NBCS) to describe the use of high-tech GPS collars to plot the movements of coyotes and uncover the food sources that may be serving as attractants. NBCS has been studying coyote activity on Aquidneck Island over the past decade in order to better understand factors influencing coyote population size and human-coyote interactions. NBCS tracking data has shown that human behavior, especially in the form of intentional or unintentional feeding, has been a major contributor to the rapid expansion of coyote populations on Aquidneck Island and is often responsible for human-coyote conflict. In 2013, NBCS joined forces with the Potter League for Animals, the Norman Bird Sanctuary, the Aquidneck Land Trust, and the Rhode Island Natural History Survey to launch CoyoteSmarts, a public information initiative whose mission is to raise public awareness of coyotes, promote public and pet safety, and encourage best coyote management practices.
While the initiative has helped spread the word about the no-feeding ordinances and the reasons behind them, enforcement has often proved to be a challenge. In response to increased coyote activity and complaints in several island neighborhoods—and the lack of recent data on the island’s coyote packs—the CoyoteSmarts partners authorized the purchase of three new high-tech collars for both research and forensic tracking, which NBCS is providing as a community service to local municipalities. The new collars employ state-of-the-art GPS and cell phone technology that can be programmed to report at intervals as short as one minute, making them ideal for pinpointing food sources that may be serving as coyote attractants. All three of the island’s police departments were informed of the purchase and asked to provide their coyote complaint records to help determine the best locations for collar deployment.
One particular neighborhood north of the Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown appeared to be a major hotspot, so the first coyote was trapped and collared in that area. The resultant tracking data provided irrefutable evidence of food subsidies being provided to coyotes at a local farm with pigs. Unprotected feed was attracting coyotes, which had to cross through residential neighborhoods to get to it. This food source, 300 feet from a neighborhood, created a hub of coyote activity, numerous coyote complaints, and an increased chance of unprotected-pet mortality. The farmer, who was unaware of the problems he was causing for his neighbors, agreed to feed his pigs in a way that does not attract coyotes and has come up with a plan for the changes he intends to make.
Farms are often a source of food subsidies for coyotes, not only because of livestock feed but also the animals themselves. If not properly housed, particularly at night, small livestock such as poultry and sheep can be highly vulnerable to coyote attacks. And larger livestock carcasses, if not properly disposed of, can sustain a coyote pack for weeks.
The tracking also turned up another food source very popular with coyotes—a community composting operation. Its managers were notified about the problem and have agreed to address it by burying food scraps under at least two feet of loam and by monitoring the site for further signs of coyote excavation.
In nearby Newport, another forensic tracking coyote revealed regular coyote traffic at the Fort Adams and Kings Beach boat ramps. The old habit of cleaning fish at the ramp and leaving the remains in the shallows was teaching coyotes to stop by every night in search of the evening meal.
Sometimes the culprit isn’t a person but Mother Nature herself. Such was the case with a seal carcass that had washed up on one of the beaches and become a coyote attractant. Tracking data uncovered the problem and also led to its source.
Encouraged by Middletown’s success with the use of forensic tracking, the neighboring town of Portsmouth has purchased its own high-tech collar, which NBCS has agreed to deploy and monitor.
“For our research and forensic tracking, the collars are ideal.” says Dr. Mitchell of NBCS. “We are able to identify significant food resources by generating a line between successive GPS points and looking for multiple travel vectors converging on an area. Essentially, we’re following the ‘breadcrumb trails’ left by coyotes as they frequent their favorite dining spots.”
(See related story: Two collared coyotes reveal where they are fed in Middletown)
Coyote pups are on the way—pet owners take notice!
March 31, 2015 —This abnormally cold and snowy winter has taken its toll on local wildlife. Geese and other waterfowl were especially hard hit. But nature is not a zero-sum game, and one species’ loss is sometimes another’s gain. Coyotes and other scavengers may have been winners this time, and soon we’ll know more about how they fared.
For coyotes, early spring is the birthing season and a time of increased hunting activity. Litter size and survival rates depend on a number of factors, foremost of which is the food supply. Parents may hunt around the clock in order to feed their hungry pups, so sightings and encounters will be on the rise and pet owners should be on alert.
By securing pets and other potential food sources, residents can help ensure that coyotes stick to their natural diet and retain their innate fear of humans. When coyotes associate food with people, the fear barrier is broken and problems often ensue. All it takes is one thoughtless feeder to create issues for a street, a block, or even an entire community. And if being a good neighbor isn’t enough of an incentive, just remember that feeding wildlife, or failing to control food attractants, is illegal under RI state law and Aquidneck Island’s municipal ordinances.
Ecological impact of coyotes merits assessment
December 31, 2014—In a response to RI DEM’s proposed 2015 Wildlife Action Plan, the CoyoteSmarts partners lent their support to a call by the RI Natural History Survey and The Conservation Agency for an assessment of the effects of RI’s growing coyote population on other species and the ecosystems that support them.
Coyotes were first seen in RI in the 1960s and can now be found in all parts of the state except Block Island. They have gradually expanded their range from farmlands and open space into suburban and urban areas and have successfully established themselves as the region’s top predator. Coyotes may also be a keystone predator, which means that their presence could have a much broader impact on the flora and fauna of our state. When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone back in 1995, it was found that they set in motion a chain of events that literally altered the landscape. The process is dramatically illustrated in a short video entitled “How Wolves Change Rivers,” currently available on YouTube.
While the ecological impact of wolves has been well studied, the same cannot be said for coyotes. Yet these wily animals are rapidly filling the niche left open by the wolf’s disappearance from the eastern United States. Unlike wolves, coyotes are highly adaptable and capable of living in close proximity to humans. Thus, unlike wolves, coyotes are probably here to stay.
The more we know about coyotes, the better equipped we will be to manage their numbers and any impacts they may be having on other species and biological communities. The welfare of animals and their natural habitats is a concern shared by all the CoyoteSmarts partners, and we hope DEM will consider our comments carefully.
See a coyote? Please report it!
November 12, 2014—To update its database of coyote activity on Aquidneck Island, the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study plans to collar and track three coyotes at locations yet to be determined. To help NBCS identify the best sites, CoyoteSmarts is requesting assistance from local residents. Anyone who sees a coyote is encouraged to complete a Sightings Report available online at CoyoteSmarts.org.
NBCS has been studying coyote behavior on Aquidneck and Conanicut Islands over the past decade. The research has shown that at least ten coyote packs inhabit the islands and that their increasing numbers have a lot to do with food. Using GPS tracking, NBCS has found that people provide thousands of pounds of food to coyotes each year. More food means larger litters and higher survival rates, leading to greater coyote population density and more opportunities for contact and conflict with humans.
The collars to be employed represent state-of-the-art GPS technology capable of transmitting location data every five minutes, making them especially useful in identifying food sources that could account for the growing coyote presence in some of our neighborhoods.
The information provided in the Sightings Reports will be considered in the selection of the tracking sites and will be incorporated into the Sightings Map available at CoyoteSmarts.org.
Caution urged as young coyotes leave the family pack
September 24, 2014—Now that fall is here and the kids have gone off to school, we’d like to remind our readers that we’re not the only species experiencing the “empty nest” syndrome. The same is true for coyotes, whose last year’s pups are finally starting to leave the family pack.
As with our own children’s future, theirs is far from certain. Some will find mates and form packs of their own, while others will wander alone as “transients,” seeking a living wherever they can find it, avoiding the territories defended by packs, and often becoming “problem” animals who end up sick, injured or dead.
At this time of heightened coyote activity—or anytime, for that matter—the safety of pets is a major concern. Small or elderly dogs and cats should not be left unattended, especially after dark. Nor should pet food or other edible attractants be left outside where coyotes can get at them. The feeding of coyotes and other wildlife—intentional or not—is not only dangerous but also illegal under Rhode Island state law and the no-feeding ordinances adopted by communities such as Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth.
Coyotes have become a fact of life in urban as well as rural areas and can be found in all parts of our state except Block Island. Learning to live safely with them is a challenge that faces every community. It’s a bit like living with a chronic condition that can be managed but not cured. And if we want to manage coyote behavior, we must start by managing our own.
CoyoteSmarts brochure now available online and off
CoyoteSmarts makes the evening news
CoyoteSmarts website draws praise from DEM official
May 7, 2014—“Awesome” was the word used by RI Dept. of Environmental Management Assistant Director Catherine Sparks to describe the CoyoteSmarts website. Speaking at the launching event for the site, Ms. Sparks went on to say that wildlife management is often fraught with emotion and controversy and that educating the public is “work that will never end.”
Other speakers at event, which was held on May 6 at the Atlantic Beach Club in Middletown, included Diana Prince of the Prince Charitable Trusts. Ms. Prince related the story of how the killing of her beloved Jack Russell terrier by a coyote led her family’s foundation to fund the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study (NBCS) back in 2005. She confessed that her initial impulse was to “shoot all the coyotes,” but she decided in the end that more good would come from studying them instead.
Ms. Prince was followed by Numi Mitchell, a wildlife biologist and lead scientist for the NBCS. Dr. Mitchell reviewed the findings of her research over the past decade, which has involved the trapping, collaring and tracking of numerous coyotes on Aquidneck and Conanicut Islands. The results clearly suggest that it is human behavior, in the form of intentional or unintentional feeding, that has contributed to the growth of coyote populations on the islands.
Thanks to the work of NBCS, the island communities have begun to adopt a scientific approach to coyote management. Middletown Police Chief Anthony Pesare told the audience that “you can’t shoot your way out of the problem” and reaffirmed his support for the no-feeding ordinance that his community was the first in the state to adopt, and for the coyote response protocol and best management practices developed by NBCS.
Christie Smith, Executive Director of the Potter League for Animals, served as emcee for the event and closed the program by thanking the speakers and the other CoyoteSmarts partners—the Aquidneck Land Trust, Norman Bird Sanctuary, The Conservation Agency, and RI Natural History Survey—for their participation in this important public information initiative.
Coyote Smarts is goal of new public info campaign
April 7, 2014—On view in the new Charter Room at the Rhode Island State House is a letter written by Roger Williams to the town of Providence in the mid-1600s. In it Williams complains that some area roads remain unsafe to travel thanks to the presence of wolves, and he wonders why no action has been taken to address this ongoing problem.
Flash forward three-and-a-half centuries. While wolves have long since disappeared from the New England landscape, a new “top dog”—the coyote—has been moving in to take their place as the region’s leading predator and an emerging public safety concern.
To help raise public awareness about coyotes, a group of organizations led by the Potter League for Animals and including The Conservation Agency, RI Natural History Survey, Aquidneck Land Trust, and Norman Bird Sanctuary has come together to launch CoyoteSmarts, a major public information initiative.
With funding from the Prince Charitable Trusts and the RI Foundation, the initiative will help residents better understand the risks associated with feeding coyotes and will educate them on strategies for keeping their pets, families and communities safe. Information will be provided to targeted and general audiences in a variety of formats, including school and community programs and a go-to website—www.CoyoteSmarts.org—for information on coyotes and coyote sightings, public and pet safety, and coyote best management practices.
The initiative will begin on Aquidneck Island, where several of the organizations are based. If it proves effective there, it can then be expanded to other communities in the state and other states in the region.
First seen in Rhode Island in the 1960s, these adaptable animals can now be found in every part of the state except Block Island. Aquidneck Island, on the other hand, has seen a marked increase in coyote activity over the past couple of decades. In the early 1990s, farmers and pet owners began to experience animal losses as coyotes made their way from the mainland by swimming or crossing one of the Island’s three bridges. Sightings were reported in Newport on the Naval Base and at the SVF Foundation, whose 64-acre farm is home to a valuable collection of heritage and endangered livestock. The killing of several of these rare animals by coyotes prompted the Foundation to acquire a small group of “guard llamas” to serve as protectors of the flock.
Over the past several years, the Island’s coyotes have expanded their territories from farmlands and open spaces into suburban and urban areas. They are now turning up in backyards and schoolyards, in driveways and on streets. While most of these encounters have been largely benign, there have also been reports of dog-walkers being stalked and of family pets being attacked and killed.
A major scientific research project begun in 2004—the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study (NBCS)—has shown that human behavior, especially in the form of intentional or unintentional feeding, has been a major contributor to the rapid expansion of coyote populations on Aquidneck Island. In response, all three towns on the Island—Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth—have enacted “no-feeding” ordinances, and two of the towns—Middletown and Portsmouth—have adopted a set of “coyote best management practices” recommended by NBCS.
As Christie Smith, the Potter League’s Executive Director, notes:
“While Aquidneck Island is fortunate not to have experienced any coyote attacks on humans to date—and while such attacks are in fact extremely rare—it is clearly in everyone’s interest that all three communities be fully informed about the no-feeding ordinances and coyote best management practices. What we hope to achieve is a two-pronged approach, applied uniformly throughout the Island, that includes non-lethal methods for controlling coyote populations, combined with other means as needed to deal with problem individuals. We believe it is possible for coyotes and people to coexist, but only in the context of an informed citizenry, sound public policy, and the ability and willingness to share information.”
Photo credit: ©Dave Hornoff, The Conservation Agency