When I first heard about coyotes that roam Detroit, it sounded like an urban legend. But like many urban legends in Detroit, the tales of coyotes are very much real. To learn more, a friend connected me with Bill Dodge, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences at Wayne State University. Bill is studying the ecology of coyotes in urban areas of southeastern Michigan. The primary focus of his research is (1) to determine how human development and activities affect the space use and activity patterns of coyotes, and (2) to investigate what food sources are important to coyotes and how this might vary seasonally and among different areas. The aim of his research is to provide information to wildlife biologists, animal damage control officials, urban planners, educators, and other interested parties to help develop reasonable and effective management strategies to mitigate negative human-coyote interactions. Bill was kind enough to author this extensive guest post. It’s not directly related to water or law, but for anyone with an interest in cities and wild predators – and how the two can coexist – it’s a fascinating read.
“We see coyotes all the time, there’s lots of them and they are everywhere!” I often get this response when I ask folks if they have seen coyotes in southeastern Michigan. Golf courses, Metro Parks, State Parks, County Parks, you name it; anywhere there are natural areas, or patches or belts of green space, people have seen, heard, or found evidence of coyotes. Does this mean that the abundance of coyotes in southeastern Michigan has increased?
Mail-in surveys of hunters conducted annually by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (MDNRE) show that the mean harvest of coyotes per hunter statewide has increased since the mid-1980s, suggesting that the abundance of coyotes may have indeed increased during the last 20-30 years. This apparent increase in coyote abundance does not appear to be restricted to rural and suburban areas either. In southeastern Michigan, the most densely human populated and developed region in the state, increased coyote sightings and removal activities, and several incidences of coyote attacks on small dogs, appear to support the survey results. During our surveys, we found evidence of coyotes in highly urbanized areas, including Dearborn, Grosse Pointe Shores/Farms, Grosse Isle, and Belle Isle, to name a few. So why have coyote numbers increased and why the apparent influx into urban areas?
Historically, coyotes were restricted to the arid grasslands and deserts of the Great Plains region of western North America. During the 20th century, for a variety of reasons, chief among them being changes in land use (e.g., logging, farming), localized wolf extirpation, and the coyote’s extreme adaptability, the coyote dramatically expanded its range to include nearly all of North and Central America. Today, the “wily” coyote inhabits all landscape categories, has readily adapted to areas dominated by human activities, and is now the top carnivore in many major metropolitan areas in the Midwest, including Michigan. We only have a rudimentary understanding of coyote ecology in urban landscapes however, because their appearance in and around cities is a relatively recent phenomenon. Some speculate that coyote abundance has increased because lower pelt prices have resulted in decreased hunting and trapping pressure on coyotes. Although possible, a more likely explanation has to do with the coyotes mating behavior and social structure.
Coyotes are monogamous, typically mating for life unless one or the other of a pair dies. Monogamy, although rare in nature, is typical of members of the Canid (or dog) family, which in North America includes wolves, coyotes, and foxes. Coyote pairs consist of an unrelated adult male and adult female that remain together throughout the year. In most years in the Midwest, mating occurs in February. After seeking out a den site, females typically give birth to four to seven pups following a 62- to 65- day gestation period. Pups remain in the den for about six weeks, and then begin to make short forays away from the den accompanied by adults. By the end of the summer, pups are often traveling and hunting alone or with siblings.
Some young coyotes remain with their parents for multiple years forming a family group or pack. Until recently, it was thought that coyotes did not form packs like wolves. This is because coyotes usually travel and hunt alone or in loose pairs and are therefore typically not seen together. Family groups maintain a territory that they defend against other coyotes and sometimes unfortunately, domestic dogs. One of the first questions that Dr. Stanley Gehrt, a professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at The Ohio State University who has studied coyotes in the Chicago metropolitan area for 10 years had was whether coyotes could maintain their social structure in highly urbanized environments. He discovered that coyotes in his Cook County study area formed family groups that often consisted of five to six adults plus pups of the year. He also found that individual packs maintained non-overlapping territories, indicating that coyotes obviously defended their territories from other packs.
Typically, only the dominant or ‘alpha’ pair within a pack breed. Although younger subordinate coyotes often contribute to pup rearing, others disperse from their natal pack to seek out unoccupied habitat and a mate for breeding, raising young, and forming a new pack. Young dispersing coyotes often travel great distances. For example, a juvenile coyote captured and outfitted with a GPS radio-collar in April 2008 in Oneonta County, New York was caught nine months later by a trapper in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania; a straight-line distance of approximately 150 miles. This tendency to disperse and ability to move long distances is the mechanism by which coyotes initially expanded their range in North America and continue to fill coyote-vacant habitats. Apparently, the influx of coyotes into human-dominated landscapes has occurred because of the availability of vacant habitats and good food resources in metropolitan and residential areas.
A major way coyotes have successfully adapted to inhabiting areas occupied by humans is by avoiding humans. Particularly in urban areas, coyotes minimize their exposure to humans, by travelling and foraging at night when humans are least active. For this reason, coyotes are seldom heard or seen, although they often leave evidence (e.g., tracks, scats) of their presence. Despite their nocturnal proclivity and avoidance of humans, because coyotes live in close proximity to humans, especially in cities, conflicts with humans may occur.
Often, the biggest complaint about coyotes is that they live near people at all. This is especially true in developed areas where humans rarely, if ever see, much less encounter a medium-sized carnivore outside of a zoo setting. Although humans have little to fear of coyotes (attacks on humans are extremely rare and none have been documented in the Midwest) they do on occasion attack and sometimes kill domestic cats or dogs. For a variety of reasons the popular media tends to focus on these incidences. This is unfortunate, because it is not constructive and reinforces negative human attitudes about coyotes.
Typically coyotes become a problem only when they become habituated to humans. This generally occurs either through intentional or unintentional feeding by people. Coyotes that associate houses and yards with food tend to lose their fear of humans and often become more active during daylight hours and are therefore seen more often. Simple precautions on our part can be taken to avoid conflicts with coyotes. First and most importantly, do not feed coyotes, either directly or indirectly. Also, do not allow pets to run loose. If you encounter a coyote, do not run; shout or throw something in its direction.
My description of coyote ecology in the Detroit metropolitan area has been necessarily broad due to an overall lack of information. The appearance of coyotes in the area however, suggests that there is sufficient natural habitat (“green space”) to provide the necessary cover and food resources for coyotes to exist. What we do know is that there are more coyotes than in the past, although just how many is not known. We also have a rough idea of where they are and what they eat. Many questions remain to be answered. Our research will shed more light on the intriguing coyote and address many of these unanswered questions.
Finally, I am often asked what we should do about the coyote “issue” in southeastern Michigan. I answer by saying that the “issue” is not a coyote issue, but a human one. Our relationship with coyotes is directly affected by our actions and behaviors. Coyotes are wild animals and should be respected as such. In turn coyotes need to maintain a healthy respectful fear of humans. In order to foster a mutual respect between humans and coyotes we need to reinforce those cues that maintain the coyotes’ wildness. One thing that can be done, and hopefully I have contributed, is to provide factual information about coyotes to the public and dispel some of the myths and disinformation about this unique carnivore.