2005-10-06 / Front Page

Coyote habitat study is first of its kind

By Michaela Kennedy

A coyote is released after being fitted with a tracking collar. A coyote is released after being fitted with a tracking collar. The Narragansett Bay Coyote Study is off and running, says biologist Numi Mitchell, reporting from the Jamestown-based Conservation Agency.

The coyote study, the agency’s newest undertaking, is designed to answer questions about local coyote populations, improve information available to the public, and develop management strategies for living with coyotes on Conanicut and Aquidneck Islands, Mitchell says. The group will study 10 coyotes from 10 different packs on the two islands.

The director of the project, Mitchell is spending her time these days trapping coyotes, putting collars on them with combination radio and satellite tracking devices, and releasing them back into the wild. This past week the coyote study team successfully trapped and fitted global positioning system satellite and radio transmitting collars on two males from different packs, one in Jamestown and the other in Newport. These collars will record resource use and habits of the coyotes 24 hours a day and transmit positions of the coyotes and their packs on a daily basis for the next year.

Trapper Spencer Tripp (left) and veterinarian Ralph Pratt with biologist Nume Mitchell, who is holding a coyote that has been collared with a tracking device. Trapper Spencer Tripp (left) and veterinarian Ralph Pratt with biologist Nume Mitchell, who is holding a coyote that has been collared with a tracking device. Throughout the summer, Mitchell has been tracking the daily routes of two other collared coyotes and streamlining the transfer of the GPS information to global-information-system mapping software. The data will soon be accessible on the agency’s Internet Web site, notes Mitchell. People will be able to look at coyote movements in their own neighborhoods.

She also says that we are in a time where people are increasingly aware or concerned about coyotes. “There is essentially no scientific information about coyotes in Rhode Island — this will be the first regional study designed to inform and educate the public. Coyotes are here to stay — our data and discoveries will contribute to management strategies for living safely with them,” she says.

Mitchell is currently reviewing and adding scientific research exercises to curriculum packages developed by Rachelle Neiheiser, educational co-ordinator for the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study. The lesson plans are designed to educate and involve students of all ages. The interactive curriculum on the Web site will allow schools, after school programs, and individuals to participate virtually in the habitat exploration. The information is tailored for lessons from grades 1 through 12. Already about 12 schools, and two after-school programs, private and public are scheduled to participate. “The afterschool teen program will be doing the program at the public library in Jamestown,” Mitchell adds.

A big question posed on the agency’s Web site is, How many coyotes are currently living on each island? Researchers involved with the study hope to answer this question and others such as: What resources are they using? Do they pose a threat to human interests on the islands? What are the best management strategies for coyote populations?

Asked how the study got started, Mitchell notes, that the Prince Charitable Trusts contracted her almost two years ago for an information study. Sparked by concerns of coyote attacks on dogs, the organization wanted to find out what was known about coyotes in the area. Mitchell points out that much information was available nationally, but little or nothing was known about Rhode Island coyote habits.

In the early part of the summer, the trapping got off to a slow start. It seemed nearly impossible to catch a coyote in the summer with their scent based — not food based — lures. Just as Mitchell and her coyote research team were beginning to question why the coyotes were not coming near the traps, autumn arrived and the traps came alive with curious canids. The researchers learned that seasonal changes affect trapping efforts.

“There are so many interesting things in the world for a coyote in the summertime. There are smells everywhere. There is plenty to eat, and it’s not the breeding season. They are raising puppies. The puppies don’t know anything about territory, and the mothers are focused on feeding the puppies,” Mitchell explains.

With the air turning cooler and the pups now grown, the smelly lures are now catching the interest of the territorial coyotes. “The lures we use are scents designed to not attract anything but coyotes, because we don’t want to trap a skunk or anybody’s dog or cat. We’re targeting coyotes with scents that are designed to pique their interest or make them think another coyote has intruded on their turf. There’s skunk essence in the lures as well,” she says.

Mitchell and her team — trapper Spencer Tripp, veterinarian Ralph Pratt, and a veterinary technician — sedate each captured coyote, conduct a physical exam, fit the collar, and then administer an antidote for the anesthetic before releasing it. She shows a picture of a placid-looking coyote that was caught. Mitchell notes a big difference in personalities between animals, but the differences are not necessarily sex-based. “This one just sat down and waited patiently while the veterinarian and I prepared the anesthetic,” she adds, pointing to a photograph of an adult male.

The study has a permit from the state Department of Environmental Management to trap the coyotes, and works with an Animal Welfare Committee that oversees the methodology of the study. Dr. Christopher Hannifin, state veterinarian, and Michael Lapisky, chief of the wildlife division of the DEM are among those on the committee.

The DEM’s role is to make sure wildlife studies follow state regulations. Lori Gibson of the DEM’s wildlife division says that the state considers wildlife a renewable resource, and puts a priority on public information. “We ask, what are the long-term solutions so people can still appreciate wildlife and live with them comfortably?” she points out. She agrees with Mitchell that education is important.

The GPS reads a coyote’s position every hour that it can get a fix on satellites. It transmits the positions in a package in the morning, and it will store about eight days of data. “By Winter we should have 10 coyotes from 10 packs collared. We have four collars out there now, two of which are prototypes. Much of the technology used in the study is completely new and some is still under development by the H.A.B.I.T. wildlife tracking company in Vancouver, British Columbia,” the biologist says.

Mitchell notes that the project is scheduled to take off with students by second semester of the school year. The Conservation Agency and St. George’s School this month hosted one teacher-training workshop, and plans a second in December. About 40 participating science educators will be taught by Lyn Malone, a certified ESRI instructor.

ESRI, the leading software company in GIS technology, is providing 15 schools and after school programs with educational installation software for educational involvement in the study. “At a cost of $1,500 per package, nationally there are a lot of groups, schools, and projects requesting software grants from ESRI. We were really flattered that they singled out our study as one to back,” says Mitchell.

The biologist shows a computer screen with points plotted on a map. The points represent places that the collared coyote visited in the course of one day.

“Part of the education is how learning how we can co-exist with the wildlife around us. Leaving food outside brings the coyotes — and other wildlife — closer, and they become tamer,” says Mitchell, referring to the increasingly relaxed attitude that is shown by wild animals. Management strategies may include ways of keeping wild animals wild, she adds.

“We’re on the frontier of the range expansion of a native top predator, and I’ve never been here as a biologist. This is a once in a lifetime experience. There are plenty of invasions of exotic species, but this is a native species. Coyotes are expanding their range as a result of things that humans have done: one, wiping out wolves, and two, deforestation, making a prairie animal able to expand northward and eastward.

“The GPS locations are as accurate as those of a navigational handheld unit. In concert with the mapping software and the Internet, the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study has cutting-edge technology and the ability to keep the community accurately and increasingly informed about coyotes as we go,” she adds.

Mitchell says that the chance to involve kids in scientifically exploring invasion of a top predator is unique. The students will pose questions that are as valid as the questions brought up by scientists.

The kids are going to participate actively in the scientific study and we will publish exceptional reports or discoveries on the Web site,” she points out.

Another novel point to this study, Mitchell says, is that it uses a system designed by the Conservation Agency to determine population density. “The system has to do with a lucky circumstance that these animals are territorial, and they live in packs. Eighty percent of the GPS points from each coyote will probably fall within core areas. That would be their territory,” she explains. “Next we have to determine how many pack members accompany each of the 10 collared coyotes. Since we know exactly where they are, by broadcasting standard predator calls at the location from a truck, we can call the pack out of the bush and count. If you know the area each pack occupies, and the number of pack members, you can get a good estimate of coyote numbers.”

According to the agency, the study will teach us more about when the coyotes are active and how they act in our neighborhood.

Since the diversity of urban and rural communities on Jamestown and Aquidneck islands is representative of other parts of Rhode Island, we’ll be able to provide useful information to the rest of the state to a large degree, and hopefully our study can expand to the mainland as we go.”

The Jamestown Teen Center is planning a dance to raise funds for the project, and there will be a silent auction that is yet to be announced.

Mitchell mentions that names for collared coyotes may be auctioned. She is also trying to raise

2000 each for two coyote collars for the Lawn and Melrose schools.

We feel it will particularly engage the younger kids if each school has

its own” coyote — like racecars,” she adds.

Mitchell extends heartfelt gratitude to sponsors who have donated money, time and materials. They include the Prince Charitable Trusts, who have provided $50,000 of support during the project’s development and implementation, and ESRI, who donated cuttingedge GIS software. Also sponsoring the study are the Bafflin Foundation, West Greenwich Animal Hospital, the Robert Potter League for Animals, Ali’s Run, and many other individuals and private organizations.

Mitchell notes that the entire project budget is $230,000. About half of the goal has been reached thanks to the generosity of all involved. Tax deductable contributions may be made by check to the Conservation Agency, 67 Howland Ave., Jamestown, RI, 02835. To learn more about the project, visit: http://www.theconservationagency. org/coyote.htm.

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