Coyotes — Boon or Menace?

Coyotes are a growing presence, and some would say menace, in the Eastern United States, including Virginia.  While I have never seen one on Naked Mountain, I have seen signs that may indicate their presence – scat like a dog’s, but unlike dog scat, full of hair.  Neighbors have also heard coyotes calling and yipping.  They sound like a cross between a wolf and a dog alternating with a high-pitched howl and yip-like barking.

Coyote – photo from Wikipedia

Friends who live in southern Albemarle County, about seven miles away, told me an amazing story verifying rumors of coyote wiliness.  One day last summer, Will walked out to one of the barns on their 1200 acre farm accompanied by the family’s young bloodhound, Missy, and a visiting pet, a small mongrel named Riley.  The whole way out to the barn, the dogs ran at each other playfully.  When the threesome got to the barn, Will saw that a coyote, standing on the lip of the “slash,” or swampy area, behind the barn, was intently watching the dogs.  Will and his wife Ti knew that a family of coyotes had moved into the slash establishing a den there.  Will watched as the coyote trotted up to the playful dogs, who were unaware of its presence at first, and then engaged them in active play.  He was astonished as the coyote played with the dogs like it was one of them.  But then, the coyote ran a little distance away, turning back to glance at the dogs in a kind of invitation.  Missy froze and just stared.  Riley chased after the coyote who then led him down the sloping field toward the slash.  When Will turned his glance to the slash he saw two other coyotes standing there, intently watching the approaching pair.  Will saw the developing danger for Riley and called frantically to him.  Finally, in the nick of time, he got his attention and Riley ran to Will, leaving his strange new companion behind.  If he hadn’t, the threesome pack of coyotes would have made quick work of poor little Riley.

 Deer hunting season has just concluded in Virginia and many hunters in the Naked Mountain area are reporting that the number of deer are significantly down.  Some hunters believe the influx of coyotes are responsible.  Many wildflower enthusiasts, like myself, would cheer this possibility.  On Naked Mountain, deer browse on many native plants including beautiful wildflowers like Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis),

Bloodroot — Photo from Jennifer Anderson @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

which I have watched decline since my husband and I purchased Naked Mountain in 1988.  

I called Matt Knox, one of two deer project coordinators with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) to ask him if he thought coyotes could be responsible for a decline in the deer population. He told me that coyotes used to be rare in the state twenty years ago when he started work with the VDGIF, but now they are commonplace.  Over the twenty years Matt said the population of deer in the state has been stable.  Some years the number of deer killed by hunters is down as in 2010, the year after a winter when a foot of snow was on the ground in most of the state for 60-90 days. Many deer starved and did not reproduce in the Spring.  He also said they would be easy targets for coyotes who can walk on top of crusty snow, while deer punch through, slowing them down. But in 2011, the deer population was up.  This year, Matt has had many reports that hunters have killed many fewer deer, but the numbers from the state’s many check points will not be available for several months.  Matt noted that the deer population in the Western United States has long co-existed with coyotes and their numbers have not suffered.  He then told me about an interesting research project that is investigating coyote behavior.

 I called Mike Fies, wildlife biologist with VDGIF, who is directing the “Ecology of the Eastern Coyote” research project.  It is being carried out at Virginia Tech by a professor there and two graduate students.  The project is designed to answer questions about whether or not coyotes are impacting the deer population in western Virginia where the numbers of deer on public lands, like the George Washington National Forest, are down. Mike said this may be due to many factors including expanding poor habitat as trees are not cut and forests mature.  He noted that the bear population has been increasing quite rapidly and that bears, in addition to coyotes, are predating deer fawns. 

 The research will impart information about the Eastern coyote which is a very different animal than its better known Western cousin.  The Eastern coyote is larger, possibly because it has interbred with the Canadian Red Wolf  in its migration East, and it has different habits.  The project traps coyotes and fits them with radio collars so their movements and denning behavior can be tracked.  Researchers are also collecting and analyzing coyote scat to determine what the animal has eaten.  The scat is subjected to DNA analysis to ensure that it is coyote and not bobcat or bear scat.  The DNA analysis also allows researchers to identify specific individual coyotes providing  a rich database of ecological information. 

 The three year project is in its second year.  Stay tuned.