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August 13, 2013 / V A Nichols

killing doesn’t allow for learning for either people or coyotes

Coyote Conundrum

When a Coyote chases you,is it a ‘conflict’ or an ‘encounter’?



Bryan Alders was riding on the Boulder Creek Path when he spotted a furry body about 50 feet away. Even at dusk, he could tell this wasn’t your average dog.

Alders, 27, had seen coyotes before, so he kept riding until the animal was 15 feet away. Then the cyclist saw something odd: “The coyote was trotting after me,” he recalls. “I’d definitely say I was surprised that a coyote was chasing me.”

This encounter doesn’t surprise Val Matheson, Boulder’s urban wildlife conservation coordinator. She has heard numerous reports this year from cyclists and runners about disturbing encounters with coyotes, particularly “escorting” events—when a coyote chases a person out of an area.

Across the Front Range, wildlife experts report an increase in incidents during the past seven years, mostly coyotes attacking dogs. At least a dozen people, including small children, have been nipped. The incidents typically happen from December through February, but also in spring and summer. All this activity has prompted athletes, dog walkers and parents to ponder: Are urban coyotes becoming more brazen and bold? Are there more coyotes? And why are they acting this way?

These are the million-dollar questions, says research wildlife biologist Stewart Breck, who leads a Front Range field study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins. The GPS tracking effort will soon yield numbers, but it’s best to focus on behavior for answers, he says. It’s clear that urban coyotes have become tolerant of humans. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are “aggressive,” however, as there’s a big difference between aggressive and bold versus tolerant and exploratory, he says.

Finding solutions is tough, however, because coyotes are smart and humans are inconsistent and irresponsible, experts say. Some people want to get rid of coyotes, deeming them too wild for their backyards; others seek close encounters, luring the animals with food. “Whenever there is feeding involved, it always ends in a train wreck,” Breck says.

One thing is certain: The native, resilient and adaptable coyote is here to stay. “If you really want zero conflict and zero problems, you have to get rid of coyotes or people,” Breck says. “The big thing is, what are people willing to do with their own behavior?”


In mid-February, Jim Walsh, 64, was riding along the Boulder Creek Path between 30th and 55th streets—a coyote-conflict hot spot. He stopped when flagged down for a question. “I think [the fear and worry] is nonsense,” said the cyclist, who logs 1,000 miles outdoors each year. “There are a lot more hazardous things … how about guns and automobiles?”

But as a father who raised kids in Boulder, Walsh added, “Maybe if you have small children you just have to be more aware.”

In mid-March near the bike path, a coyote chased and bit a running 5-year-old, leaving a scratch. Earlier this year, a coyote nipped a jogger’s calf along Skunk Creek Trail; another bared its teeth at a man walking his dog near 49th Street. More than half of coyote bites happen because people are protecting dogs, or because the coyote is ill, Breck says. While it’s uncommon for coyotes to carry rabies, they can become infected, most likely from touching rabid bats. (Colorado has recorded one rabid coyote bite in the past three decades.)

“I wish I could say why these incidents are happening,” Matheson says. Her best guess is feeding. Intentionally or not, people are offering coyotes meals, like the pile of burritos she recently found on the path. “We have changed the coyotes’ expectation of what people are. We’re not large and scary; instead coyotes expect a snack from us.”

To reverse this, the city and county created hazing teams to retrain coyotes that humans are no fun to be around. Starting in January, hazers ventured out with noisemakers, such as ear-splitting horns and batteries shaken in aluminum cans. At first it took a lot, Matheson says. “They would yawn, lie down and just look at us.” It took an arsenal of rocks, sticks and balls to get one particularly stubborn coyote moving. “But it’s my gut feeling they are all leaving quicker now.”


Boulder should be commended “with an A-plus” for hazing, says Boulder’s Marc Bekoff, a Scientific Advisory Board member of Project Coyote, a California-based nonprofit advocacy group. Research shows that lethal measures thwart coexistence, he says.

Wildlife managers shot two coyotes in March and more in recent years for escorting behaviors. Across the state, thousands of the animals are killed each year by a combination of the USDA-Wildlife Services’ aerial gunning, poisoning and trapping programs, as well as coyotes hunted as small game and killed by pest-control companies. But killing doesn’t allow for learning for either people or coyotes, Bekoff points out. “I would much rather live among wildlife that I know, and who know me.” Coyotes aren’t aggressive animals, Bekoff says. For instance, they will escort to lay out their territory for courtship and breeding. Escorting encounters happen more in winter as days grow shorter and dog walkers are out at dusk. The coyote baring her teeth in spring or summer isn’t being aggressive; she’s telling your dog, a Candi competitor, to stay away from her pups. “It’s all really appropriate urban-wildlife behavior if you understand it,” he says, “and then you can change your behavior”—by walking your dog in daylight, for example, and using a leash. “We need to stop calling these conflicts, because they are encounters.”

If you want to understand coyote behavior, watch dogs, Bekoff says. Like wolves and other predatory canids, coyotes are playful. They chase moving objects and can be assertive and exploratory, but that doesn’t translate to violent or aggressive.

“I say that if people appreciated coyotes for who they are, as amazing, adaptable individuals, they would appreciate them more.”


Why Haze?

If you appreciate coyotes as intelligent native creatures—even cherish them as backyard wildlife—you shouldn’t be afraid to haze them, wildlife experts say. It sounds counter intuitive, but it’s kinder to squirt them with a hose, throw sticks and balls, or get big and scary than it is to make kiss noises, feed them burritos or just do nothing. And data show it works.
In the best of all possible worlds, we would leave coyotes alone, says Boulder ethologist Marc Bekoff, who has studied coyotes for 42 years. But it’s come down to a choice: Do we want coyotes shot because they are tolerant of us, or are we willing to throw a tennis ball at them?

“Am I being nice?” Bekoff asks rhetorically. “Yes, I think that’s a lot nicer choice for the animal than being dead.”           



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