The coyotes among us

All of Maryland is now a hunting ground for the Eastern coyote, which has been known to attack pets, farm animals and humans


You say the cat's gone missing, and your nights are haunted by eerie yips and howls? Could be coyotes, pardner.

Eastern coyotes - descendants of familiar Western varmints who picked up some weight and wolf genes on their century-long trot eastward - have become a growing nuisance in Maryland.

Truth be told, coyotes have been here for more than two decades. But their range and numbers are increasing. They're active in every Maryland county now, especially Washington's suburbs. They've settled Rock Creek National Park and roam nearby streets in the capital itself.

Coyotes generally avoid people and stick to small mammals and rodents for dinner. But as their numbers grow, so can their predations. Coyotes have killed and harassed Maryland farm animals and snatched pets from backyards. Their increasing presence in the suburbs is a growing worry.

"Once they become habituated to humans, in areas that do not allow [hunting], they do become fairly bold," said Robert C. Colona, fur bearer project leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"They're seen during the day. They may den under the shed, eat out of the cat's bowl and then eat the cat," he said. And sometimes "they do attack humans."

Such attacks are rare. We're thousands of times more likely to be bitten by dogs. But Maryland and Delaware were the last two states on the continent to be colonized by coyotes, so we can see our future in the 47 others.

In February, a 44-year-old Cape Cod, Mass., woman was bitten on the hand by a rabid coyote as she tried to shoo it away from her tethered dog.

In October, a 76-year-old man in Northborough, Mass., wrestled a 45-pound female coyote to the ground after the animal attacked him and his 4-year-old grandson on a nature trail. He held the struggling coyote down until police arrived and strangled it.

Earlier this month, a guard patrolling a country club in Mashpee, Mass., was bitten by a coyote he surprised as it rooted through bags of garbage.

And that's just the news from Massachusetts. Coyote complaints are rising nationwide as development encroaches on old coyote habitats and the wily canines adapt to an environment enriched by our animals, vegetables, trash and inevitable rodents.

Maryland has no count of its coyote population. But Virginia, with a similar habitat, estimates that its coyote population is growing 29 percent annually - despite hunting, trapping and full-time control efforts. Some researchers say that when hunters kill more coyotes, the survivors have bigger litters.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's nuisance animal hot line for Maryland logged 132 coyote-related calls in the year that ended Sept. 30. Counts for prior years were unavailable.

Most coyotes in Maryland are west of its urban centers, but most complaints come from the Washington suburbs, said Kevin Sullivan, state director for USDA wildlife services. One trapper who specializes in nuisance animals had so far taken 17 coyotes in Montgomery County, he said.

Callers also reported $5,000 in damage to livestock in four incidents involving calves, chickens, adult sheep and lambs and one household pet.

The dollar figure is tiny compared with other states. But not everyone with a problem calls the USDA. And "I can tell you," Sullivan said, "the calls are going to go up; there's no doubt about that."

Some Maryland residents might welcome a new top predator - especially where deer have become a headache. But for others, including state wildlife managers, coyotes are a costly nuisance.

As such, they may be hunted legally in Maryland year-round, with no bag limits. Trappers enjoy an 80-day coyote season from November through mid-January. Most use state-approved, but still controversial leghold traps, and dispatch the animals with gunshots. Trappers say coyotes won't enter cage traps.

Goats helpless

Curtis Firey, a 31-year-old Washington County resident, has been catching coyotes for nearly 10 years. He's one of 200 state-licensed nuisance-animal trappers.

"It's just been getting steadily worse," he said. Farmers used to talk about all the foxes on their land, but "anymore, they're just talking about the coyotes."

Five or six years ago, Firey typically caught two to five coyotes a season. "Then the last several years, it went to seven or eight, and up to 21 last year," he said. He's nabbed eight so far this month.

One of his customers is Donald Bragunier, 64, of Clear Spring, who raises cattle, corn and wheat on 3,000 acres in Maryland and West Virginia.

He also has a herd of goats he bought to eat unwanted brush in his pastures. Coyotes "just killed all the little ones, the big ones too," he said. His 80 goats have been whittled down to about 30.

"Goats are helpless when it comes to coyotes and dogs," he said. Four or five coyotes will gang up on one animal. "They nip their legs, and bite them to get them down on the ground" for the kill.

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