Gardening Tips: March 12, 2014

My column on coyotes a few weeks ago provoked quite a bit of email as well as some beautiful pictures. Thanks for sending them to me! People seem to be pretty divided on whether these local residents are helpful or harmful. A student reporter in the Hudson Valley area sent me the following questions, which I forwarded to Dr. Paul Curtis, Cornell University Cooperative Extension Wildlife specialist. I think his answers are worth sharing with you.
Coyotes have been breeding and raising their pups in areas with increased human contact, do you think pups being born into this setting are making them more of a threat to us because they’re seeing humans as less of a threat?
If coyotes don’t see people as a threat, they are smart and can definitely habituate to our presence.  Also, people either intentionally (or unintentionally) feeding coyotes (e.g., pet food left outdoors overnight) can facilitate habituation and lead to conflicts.  That said, only a very small percentage of coyotes ever have conflicts with people.  Out of 40 coyotes I had collared in Westchester County, only one got in trouble cavorting with dogs for about two weeks during breeding season.

Hunting question
Coyotes are protected by environmental law, however local hunters can now be paid to hunt them to control the population. Do you think that this is necessary? Do you think that people should be allowed to hunt them for a longer period than November-March? 
Yes, coyotes are protected game animals and furbearers.  I’m not aware of any bounties on coyotes in New York State, however, there are coyote-killing contests where hunters taking the most coyotes in a weekend can win prizes.  I don’t see any need to expand the existing coyote season.  If coyotes are causing conflicts, or threatening safety or property, they can be taken at any time of the year with a depredation permit.  Also, wildlife control operators can take problem animals at any time if hired by a landowner.
Recent reports have portrayed that coyotes have become increasingly more aggressive. Do you think that the behavioral changes are due to the availability of human food and garbage? Or because it is breeding season? Or both?
I don’t think coyotes are becoming more aggressive.  However, in areas where they are not hunted or trapped (suburbia) they can habituate to the presence of people.  Even in Westchester County, coyotes used primarily natural areas and ate a natural diet (deer, rodents, etc.).  We rarely found garbage or other anthropogenic food sources in over 500 coyote scats we analyzed.
Many locals have lost their pets and livestock to coyotes more recently than usual. Also in New Paltz, there have been mores sightings of them on roads and even during the daytime. Why do you think this is?
More daytime sights of coyotes usually is an indication of potential habituation to people.  Although livestock kills do happen, they are not all that common in New York State.  It is not nearly as common as out west.  The pets of greatest risk are small dogs.  Coyotes are very territorial and will kill small dogs in their home range if given the chance.  Coyotes rarely take house cats.  Again, out of more than 500 scats examined, only three contained hairs from house cats.  They stay away from cats for the most part, probably because cats have teeth and claws.

Livestock losses
Have you or anyone you know lost a pet/livestock to a coyote recently?
I don’t know anyone personally.  I have heard several reports of attacks on small dogs, but nothing recent.
What precautions do you recommend locals take in order to prevent coyote attacks, or what to do when one occurs?
Remove any potential food attractants.  When walking small dogs, keep them nearby on a leash.  If a coyote does become aggressive, shout, yell, and throw sticks or rocks at it.  If it is not rabid, it will flee.  Rabid coyotes can be aggressive and unpredictable.
Do you think that there is any solution in controlling their population? Or perhaps, a method in decreasing coyotes’ growing aggressive and fearless behavior?
Managers have tried to reduce coyote numbers out west for decades with no success, even using poisons and aerial gunning (which would never be used in the eastern US).  Coyotes are here to stay, and we have to learn to live with them.  Again, removing food attractants and minimizing habituation is the best we can do.  If an animal causes severe problems, have it removed by a WCO.  Just killing coyotes randomly will have little impact on their numbers or potential conflicts.