Dr. Numi Mitchell keeps a freezer full of dead woodchucks in her house. She uses them to bait traps in southeastern Rhode Island. "Coyote crack!" she says impishly. She has been trapping coyotes in the urban areas around Narragansett Bay for more than a decade. They are smart and hard to catch, but the ones she does catch are fitted with high-tech collars that enable her to track them. She has learned a lot about urban coyotes. She can delineate the territorial boundaries of 10 packs, one of which encompasses the lush grounds of the Newport mansions.
Coyotes began moving into Newport and Jamestown in the 1960s. Like teenagers homing in on a refrigerator, they came for food. They found a cornucopia—rodents, cats, dumpsters, chickens, rabbits, dogs, fruit trees—not to mention the people who actually fed them. "Half the population fears coyotes," Mitchell says. "The other half feeds them."
Because the coyotes have come to associate people with food, the two species are increasingly in conflict in U.S. cities as pets are killed or humans bitten. Escalating conflict typically leads to a public outcry and a call to eradicate the coyotes. Such has been the case in Los Angeles, Denver and San Francisco. But all have found the value of détente. Their coyote colonies are thriving. San Francisco has a coyote hotline, on which 70 sightings have been reported this year, and Denver has launched a three-year study called "The Denver Coyote Project." Neither city is trying to eradicate the animals.
That eradication doesn't work as a "population control strategy" is the consensus of scientists like Mitchell. According to her website, the size of a coyote population is determined by the availability of food. "Coyotes have intrinsic physiological and behavioral abilities to control their own numbers. Their reproductive rate is regulated by the amount of food competition with other coyotes." If you shoot a bunch of coyotes, the resultant increase in the food supply means more pups are born. Litters are smaller when food is scarce. In a monograph on coyote population mechanics in The Journal of Wildlife Management, Frederick Knowlton described the "inverse relationship between population density and litter size." Where coyotes were abundant in one study area, litters averaged 4.3. In another, "where coyote numbers were drastically reduced by intensive control efforts, the average was 6.9." Moreover, a story in High Country News cites a study showing that "pups born in populations that are hunted or trapped are more likely to survive into adulthood than those born to undisturbed populations."
Utah takes a different approach. It offers incentives to kill them. The 2012 Mule Deer Protection Act required the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to reduce the coyote population and pay a $50 bounty for a dead coyote. In the past three years, the DWR estimates 39,551 coyotes have been killed, although bounties were not paid on all of them. In the 2015 fiscal year, the DWR paid $409,600 in bounties and spent $118,000 to hire hunters to kill 305 coyotes. Most of the killing was in rural areas.
Mitchell, who denies being a "coyote hugger," calls Utah's bounty program "ridiculous." The DWR, on the other hand, believes the Mule Deer fawn-survival rate is edging up in areas where coyotes were removed during the fawns' first four months. But DWR officials are quick to point to the effects of weather, drought and habitat conditions on young deer. Thus, four years and a few million dollars later, no one will say definitively that 39,551 dead coyotes have made a difference.
Meanwhile, because the coyote is not a protected species in Utah, government agencies aren't monitoring coyote colonization of the state's cities. No one can say whether urban chicken coops—"naughty coyote training facilities," Mitchell calls them—are losing hens to predation. No one knows how many missing cats have been dinner for coyotes. However, three years ago, a coyote killed a Jack Russell Terrier on the Ensign Peak trail while the dog's owner watched from a short distance away. In 2012, a Kennecott security guard was bitten by a coyote. A friend, whose yard in the upper Avenues is overrun by tiny rabbits, watched a sleek coyote loping through Salt Lake City Cemetery in April. I believe we are following in the footsteps of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Denver. How long will it be until coyotes are picking off ducks in Fairmont Park or unleashed dogs in Wasatch Hollow Park where scofflaws let their pets run free? We should learn from other western cities and prepare for a new predator in our urban ecosystem.
The transition will not be friction-free. "Coyote control programs are frequently subject to economic, social and political ramifications," wrote Knowlton in 1972. And so it is in Utah in 2016. The impetus for the Mule Deer Preservation Act did not come from the DWR. It came from rural-county legislators. Whatever their motivation was, the DWR now finds itself saddled with a law at odds with science; and taxpayers are stuck with the bill for a coyote-killing program of doubtful efficacy. The Utah Legislature, notoriously stingy when it comes to education, has been generous in supporting pet political causes like the $4 million campaign to keep the sage grouse off the Endangered Species list and the $500,000 lobbying effort to lift the protection of federal law from wolves. I doubt many legislators are concerned about the annual cost of keeping coyotes in the crosshairs. But I hope they bestir themselves to revisit the flawed 2012 law well before coyotes are hunting the rats that share my Sugar House niche in the city ecosystem.