We have those here? This was my question in 2010, shortly after
relocating to the Charlotte metropolitan area, when I first heard the call of a
coyote near my home. I wasn’t aware that
they were present throughout North Carolina, as I had been a lifelong resident
of the state and never seen nor heard one.
Perhaps it was because I previously lived in more rural areas, where the
animals could more easily avoid human contact, that I had never known anyone
else who encountered a coyote either.
that first observation, I have witnessed the animals individually pass through a
neighbor’s yard and a nearby industrial park during the daytime, plus as a
mated pair – appearing as large as German Shepherds – patrolling a neighborhood
near Charlotte-Douglas Airport late at night.
Because they are apparently common here, and the chance of interaction
with humans therefore greater, I began to consider Charlotte’s coyote
population through our lens of urban ecology.
What is the social consequence to the urbanites who must share space
with them? What effect do these
predators have on local biodiversity? Is
there any benefit to having them around?
And how does urban living affect the animals themselves?
are not native to this area, with their original range being west of the
Mississippi River. But like most
invasives, their expansion can be attributed to human influence. They were illegally translocated to North
Carolina as game for sport hunters, and quickly filled the niche opened by the
previous removal of wolves from the region.
The first coyote sighting in North Carolina occurred in 1938; they were
confirmed in Mecklenburg County in 1995 and now reside in all 100 counties of
the state (The Coyote in Mecklenburg, 2008).
2013 Mecklenburg Country Park and
Recreation was already engaged in an informational campaign about coyotes
in the area, acknowledging high public interest (2013 Annual Report), and the
county has been logging voluntarily-reported sightings since 2012 (Off, 2017). As seen in Figure 1, distribution of sightings since 2014 appears more
concentrated in the affluent South-Charlotte area, with the greatest clustering
occurring within a few miles of Uptown (Off, 2017). In January 2017 unconfirmed sightings spiked
to their highest level since 2014 (Off, 2017), and a German Shepherd was mauled
in Weddington in February (Bell, 2017).Chris
Matthews, Director of Mecklenburg Park and Rec’s Division of Nature Preserves and Natural Resources, has emphasized
a complete lack of attacks on humans (Off, 2017). Insisting that local coyotes are transient,
he has repeatedly claimed that – despite recognized increases in the last
decade – their population is not
currently on the rise (Bell/Off, 2017).
Yet he has offered no tangible data to validate these claims,
acknowledging that the county is not actively monitoring the animals nor
attempting to control them (Off, 2017).
if numbers remain stagnant, it is reasonable to presume that coyotes will
remain a permanent fixture in Mecklenburg County when considering that
intensive control efforts – including bounties – have failed in other states
(Fox & Coyote Pop. Study, 2012).
They are opportunistic feeders with diverse diets ranging from
flora/fauna and carrion to livestock, pets, and even garbage (The Coyote in
Mecklenburg, 2008). And as human
development increasingly overlaps with their adopted habitat, coyotes tend to
include more anthropogenic food sources in their diets in urban areas (Gehrt,
2007). They are also helped by a high
reproductive rate and rapid growth of offspring, with pups fully independent at
age nine months (Coyotes
in Towns and Suburbs, 2011). Offspring
may remain with the parents to form family groups if there is an abundance of
food within the territory, or if increasing population density limits available
space for establishing new territories (Coyotes in Towns and Suburbs, 2011). But the dispersal rate is high for most, with
individuals travelling up to 200 miles to establish new home ranges that may span
from 4 to 13 km2 (Gehrt, 2007/Fox & Coyote Pop. Study, 2012). Indeed, this transient tendency poses a
challenge to estimating populations (Fox & Coyote Pop. Study, 2012).
they will maintain a presence in the heavily-populated Charlotte metro area in
the foreseeable future, the most immediate area of concern is how coyotes will
affect humans and their activities.
There is evidence that coyotes in urban settings tend to decrease
diurnal activity (Gehrt, 2007) and that the non-transient residents generally
prefer land types not associated with humans (Gehrt et al, 2009), all in an effort to remain undetected. But sources concur that the animals are more
active – and attacks on humans more likely – during the breeding season from
January through April (Bell, 2017/Coyote Conflicts, 2017). One study by the Cook County Urban Coyote Research Project in Illinois compiled
records of human attacks from 1985 through 2006 and cataloged 142 incidents
across 14 states and four Canadian provinces, with nearly half occurring in
California and another 14% in Arizona.
Nearly one-third of the cases were confirmed to involve scenarios in which
coyotes were being fed by humans, while 37% were classified as predatory, 22%
as investigative, and 7% as rabies instances (Coyote Conflicts, 2017). Fortunately, North Carolina had one of the
lowest occurrences of human attacks of all states documented, and as noted
earlier there has not yet been such an attack in Mecklenburg County.
while Charlotte-area citizens apparently have little to fear in regard to
personal safety, the safety of pets and livestock is also a significant
concern. Sources unanimously agree that
attacks on domestic animals are best prevented by taking precautions such as
closely monitoring pets while outdoors (and keeping them leashed, if possible),
and installing adequate physical barriers to prevent coyotes’ access. It is also prudent to be exceptionally
vigilant between late Autumn and early Spring, when the majority of coyote
attacks on pets occur (Coyote Conflicts, 2017).
can also pose an indirect threat to domestic animals by acting as carriers for
disease. While they have little chance
of transferring sarcoptic mange to humans or pets, due to the necessity of
direct physical contact to do so, the same cannot be said for canine
heartworm. In another study in Cook
County, IL, deceased urban coyotes were collected and examined, and necropsies
revealed a 41% heartworm infection rate (Disease, 2017). This was 10
times greater than the estimated infection rate of rural coyotes, and the
mosquito vector can easily transmit this parasite to dogs (Disease, 2017).
impacts of urban-dwelling coyotes blur the line between human interest and
ecological concern, namely how they affect certain species. For example: coyotes are primary predators of
fawns, which helps slow the growth of deer populations in urban centers (Coyote
Relationships, 2017). This can be a
cause for concern among deer hunters (Fox & Coyote Pop. Study, 2012), but is
also beneficial to the safety of motorists and to preventing an overabundance
of deer within the local ecosystem. Coyotes
are also known to hunt feral cats for food and/or to remove competition for
smaller prey items (Coyote Relationships, 2017), which is likely troubling to
animal lovers and rescues trying to help such feral populations. However, this hunting is beneficial in that
it restricts cat ranges to residential areas and reduces predation on
songbirds, thereby increasing the birds’ nesting success and making natural
spaces more accessible to local wildlife (Fox & Coyote Pop. Study,
2012/Coyote Relationships, 2017).
a purely ecological sense, there is legitimate concern over the effect of
coyotes on other mesopredators in urban systems. While there is mixed data on how they influence
raccoon, skunk, and opossum populations, anecdotal evidence suggests that
coyotes decrease fox numbers in both rural and urban communities (Coyote
Relationships, 2017). Gray foxes are
seemingly immune to this, due to their ability to climb and escape danger, but
red foxes are typically displaced as they avoid competition and predation from
the larger coyotes (Fox & Coyote Pop. Study, 2012). But whatever detrimental effects coyotes may
have while filling their urban niche, it seems that the benefits still outweigh
the drawbacks. In addition to limiting
growth of deer and feral cat populations, they function as a biocontrol against
destructive rodents and groundhogs (Fox & Coyote Pop. Study, 2012). Rodents comprise the majority of both rural
and urban coyote diets, hence preliminary evidence suggests removal of coyotes
results in greater rodent abundance and ultimately diminished diversity (Coyote
Relationships, 2017). Coyotes are also
effective in nest predation of Canada geese, limiting population growth of what
is considered a nuisance animal in many cities (Coyote Relationships, 2017). Contributions such as these lead some animal
welfare groups and municipalities to recognize the “tremendously positive
impact” of coyotes (Montreal SPCA, 2012), including the city of Chicago – which
in July 2016 passed a measure protecting the beneficial predators from being
trapped/killed by animal control unless explicitly posing a threat (Caine,
considering positive and negative influences coyotes have on both human welfare
and urban biodiversity, it is also pertinent to examine what effects urban
living has on the animals themselves.
They have, after all, filled an ecological niche left behind by native
wolves of the Charlotte region, and are therefore a considerable player in the
current system. Although some sources
cite scant evidence that coyote population densities differ significantly
between urban and rural settings (Fascione et
al, 2004), the animals certainly face a unique set of challenges when
living in such close proximity to humans.
Automobile collisions are the most frequent cause of mortality (Gehrt,
2007), followed by poising with anticoagulant rodenticides (Serieys – Poisons,
2011). Ingestion of such toxins is often
secondary, accumulating in the coyotes as they consume contaminated prey, but
can also be primary when deliberate baiting is involved (Serieys – Poisons,
2011). Either method of delivery is
possible in the Charlotte area, as Mecklenburg County’s rodent control program
allows for the use of rodenticides (Mecklenburg County Health Ordinance, 2017)
and local gun ordinances restrict residents from shooting coyotes, possibly
prompting bait use instead (Bell, 2017).
The prospect of bioaccumulation through the food web is alarming, as
tertiary exposure is also possible (Serieys – Poisons, 2011). Some areas are home to larger predators, such
as cougars, which can prey on coyotes directly, and in Mecklenburg County
scavengers can feed on the deceased. While
no evaluation of rodenticide contamination in Charlotte’s coyote population has
apparently been attempted, one noteworthy case study from Southern California
found exposure in 83% of test subjects over a 9-year period (Serieys – Poisons,
hypothetical threat to urban coyotes involves potential inbreeding/reduced gene
flow due to habitat fragmentation (Serieys – Urbanization & Threats, 2011). Observations have shown that, despite the
aforementioned preference for natural tracts, coyotes in different areas
exploit a great variation of land types depending on what is available (Gehrt et al, 2009). But there have been conflicting results among
studies exploring the effect of fragmentation on range size. Some indicate that fragmentation increases
range extent, while others reveal the opposite trend (Gehrt et al, 2009). In the latter scenario, reduced ranges could
conceivably lead to less genetic diversity and potential inherent health issues
in the future (Serieys – Urbanization & Threats, 2011). Evidence for this may have been found in a
Chicago-area study of coyote monogamy which took place from 2000 to 2006. Using a combination of radiotelemetry and
genotyping, researchers identified seven breeding pairs in the study area and
found that, while none were polygamous, one of the pairs was significantly genetically related (Hennessy et al, 2012). A single pair may seem like an outlier, but
it was sufficient for the research team to conclude “the urban coyotes’
breeding strategy may not be sufficient to completely avoid mating between
relatives” (Hennessy et al, 2012).
present an integral research opportunity in the Charlotte metro area, and the local
scientific community appears to have only scratched the surface when compared
to other urban hubs such as Chicago and Los Angeles. One local highlight was published in 2014,
however, which explored the influence of socioeconomic and habitat variables in
the application of citizen science (Wine et
al, 2014). The study concluded that:
building density was positively correlated to likelihood of human/coyote
encounters due to increased presence of people, higher household income also
increased likelihood of encounters due to more food/cover resources available
on properties, and that occupation could be a predictor because people working
outdoors are more likely to encounter wildlife (Wine et al, 2014). Presence of
forests/wooded areas also increased the likelihood of spotting coyotes, as did
areas containing managed clearings – which provide abundant prey items and
opportunities for concealment during daytime rest. Methodological issues were acknowledged,
including variations in observer quality (misidentification) and the
possibility that abundance of sightings indicates high concentrations of people
more so than concentrations of coyotes.
Remedies to these challenges were suggested, such as training citizens
to properly identify the animals, and coupling the citizen science approach with
radiotelemetry studies (Wine et al,
study will likely be foundational to how urban coyote research is conducted in Mecklenburg
County in the future, but meanwhile the animals’ utility for filling an
ecological niche and controlling nuisance animals should be considered a strong
case for peaceful coexistence. And since
control/relocation efforts would likely be ineffective regardless, it is
incumbent upon local residents to adjust their lifestyles intelligently to
protect themselves, their animals, and the current ecosystem.