Six-year-old Alison asked, “What’s wrong, daddy?” Her father looked up; he’d heard the growling too.
After Ian Vigus got off work last Thursday he had let Allison bounce on her trampoline as he tinkered on an old truck outside their home in Orange County.
An English Bullmastiff named Bernie lay on the ground watching the child bounce. “When she’s nearby, the dog can’t be separated from her,” Vigus said.
Bernie began a low, rumbling growl, then stood facing the field behind Allison.
Fifty yards away the coyote snarled back.
“Go inside the house, baby,” Vigus told Allison. The dad, daughter and dog all went inside. Vigus unlocked a safe, loaded a 223 Ruger and went back out.
The coyote ran for the treeline. At about 600 yards, Vigus “gave him a little bit of a lead over the top,” he said. The coyote fell dead.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission recently drafted a Coyote Management Plan emphasizing the need to educate the state’s humans about its coyotes.
Exempting the ever-withering Red Wolf population of the Coastal Plain, coyotes are now the apex predators in North Carolina. Sightings are frequent. Wildlife officer Forest Orr has heard of dog walkers looking over a shoulder to see a coyote upwind, watching.
Pictures of coyotes have filled internet news feeds in recent weeks.
After a video of a rabid coyote threatening a family in Huntersville in Mecklenburg County circulated on local social media, North Carolinians have even started to share out-of-state encounters.
The Fort Bend Sheriff’s Office in Texas poked fun at its own citizenry, advising: “Merely seeing one is not reason to call us. However, there are certain behaviors that are cause for alarm. Specifically: Coyote carrying box marked ‘ACME.’ … Coyote posting signs such as ‘Detour’ or ‘Free Bird Seed.”
Strong interest in coyotes in part stems from strong concerns about them.
The management plan said many deer hunters believe coyotes are responsible for the decline of white tailed deer in the state. One study found from 2007 to 2016 deer numbers declined 23 percent in the Eastern Deer Season and 8.5 percent statewide.
Coyotes do prey upon fawns, and rarely on adult deer. But the management plan said “hunter harvest remains the primary source of adult mortality in hunted populations.”
To prevent coyotes from preying on livestock the management plan suggests a combination of lethal and non-lethal methods including fencing and noise-making devices.
The plan said children should never be left alone around coyotes, but also said there have been no documented attacks by non-rabid coyotes on humans in North Carolina – despite their having been residents for decades.
During the 19th century, as humans expanded their range and infrastructure, the larger of North Carolina’s indigenous predators – cougars and wolves – were gradually eradicated.
Coyotes moved in.
The wildlife commission thinks they first arrived in 1988. By 2005, they were reported in every one of the state’s 100 counties.
While there is no single estimate of coyotes in North Carolina, it’s well known that they’re hard to get rid of. Over a century of attempts across North America have failed.
Coyote reproduction is density-dependent, said Jessie Birckhead, an extension wildlife biologist with wildlife commission. Litter sizes can range from four to about 10 pups.
If there are more coyotes than an area can support, coyote litter sizes will decrease, fewer pups will survive to adulthood and young coyotes will wait longer before first mating.
If there are fewer coyotes but abundant food, then coyotes will produce bigger litters, will start breeding at younger ages and the odds of pups surviving to adulthood will increase.
“Surprisingly, when as much as 60 percent of the coyote population is removed from an area, the population can recover within a year,” the management plan says. “Even if 90 percent of coyotes are removed, the population can recover in 5 years.”
When encountering a coyote
On a recent afternoon, one Hillsborough resident unknowingly, near-perfectly followed the wildlife commission’s recommendations for what to do when encountering a coyote.
At about 2:30 p.m. Feb. 6, Mike Edwards noticed his dog, Bella, staring and wagging her tail at something trapped with her in his backyard on Margaret Lane.
“We describe Bella as an ‘Orange County special’” Edwards said. “Half-pit, half lab.”
Edwards’ backyard is enclosed by a 6 foot fence with a 4 foot gate, and he couldn’t understand how the coyote got in.
The coyote ran toward the gate. But changed its mind about trying to leap, Edwards said, and instead it tried to hide in a compost bin leaving its – “big, beautiful” – tail hanging out.
Edwards put Bella inside. He opened a gate, and the coyote ran out.
The wildlife commission recommends that when people do see a coyote, they remain a safe distance away, make noise, tell children not to approach it, and throw small objects at it. Coyotes will aggressively defend their young, most commonly against dogs.
A survey by the wildlife commission found a small minority of those surveyed had ever had direct encounters with coyotes. Of those, 23 percent said they’d heard a coyote, 24 percent said they’d seen one, 4 percent said a pet had been attacked and 2 percent reported having felt threatened.
Thirty-six percent of urban respondents reported they don’t like coyotes. Twenty-six percent reported that they do.
Urbanites and greenway users were more supportive of coyote population numbers staying the same or increasing, versus those from rural areas.
The wildlife commission says its survey also revealed misconceptions and noted “The Commission did not release coyotes into North Carolina.”
Edwards posted a picture of his coyote online which the Hillsborough Police Department reposted on its Facebook page. Edwards wrote, “it was a treat seeing a healthy top level predator.”
However, other Facebook users’ comments suggested he should have shot the coyote with a bow and arrow or an AR-15 assault rifle.
North Carolina has an open coyote hunting season, Birckhead said. “So you can essentially shoot coyotes 365 days a year,” she said.
Coyotes and cats
Roland Kays is a research associate professor at N.C. State University who has studied the impacts of hunting and hiking on animal populations.
Kays and his fellow researchers set up cameras in 32 parks from South Carolina to Maryland.
Some of these parks were hunted and hiked in. Some were located near areas that allowed for hiking and hunting. Also, the researchers observed certain remote parks that banned such activities.
They studied the number of animals captured by their cameras’ lenses.
“Our strongest response across all our sites, was that areas that are hunted have more coyotes,” Kays said. “It’s like you remove one territorial animal, five come in trying to take over that territory.”
The scientists were surprised by how few cats were caught on their cameras.
When Kays combined the data from the cameras across the 32 parks and data gathered from cameras set up in the Raleigh Greenway and in Wake County backyards, he found that “cats are rarer where coyotes roam,” he said.
The felines either avoided canine company and stayed away, Kays said, or the coyotes must have eaten almost all of them.
Coyotes and dogs
The day that Vigus shot the coyote he wasn’t overly concerned for his daughter’s safety because he was there, he said.
“What concerned me was that the coyote was undeterred by my 200 pound dog,” he said. “Bernie growled, and the coyote just growled back.”
Brian Hare is an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University and an expert on canines.
“Usually people get freaked out when coyotes are in the area,” he said. “Because of course [people think] ‘We have to kill Wile E. Coyote. It’s going to eat all of our dogs.’ But when the boring scientists come along and examine their poop there is little evidence of digested dogs.”
Hare has used Kays’ research to study whether coyotes, as they come in more frequent contact with humans, are becoming domesticated.
“We think there’s something that is going on in coyotes that might be a lot like what happened when dogs were domesticated,” Hare said. “But we don’t know yet.”
Vigus said he and others he’s spoken to in Orange County have come to accept coyotes as part of living in North Carolina.
“We’re inundated with them,” he said. “I met a guy who traps them. He said he trapped 18 last month. He used to take them to Virginia for a special hunt, but they said they didn’t want them anymore. They have too many there now.”
The management plan suggests one of the most effective ways of controlling coyote problems is through removal of specific, individual coyotes that are causing trouble to humans.
But, overall, it seems coyotes are here to stay. There is no silver bullet for a coyote.