2009-10-22 / News

Local scientist proposes ‘coyote coexistence’ animal feeding ordinance

By Phil Zahodiakin

A Jamestown scientist has applied a groundbreaking approach to her study on the growth of coyote populations on Conanicut and Aquidneck Islands. The research, led by biologist Numi Mitchell, has turned up a wealth of information in support of a draft ordinance that promises to manage coyotes more effectively than eradication campaigns.

The ordinance is part of the proposed Coyote Coexistence and Management Plan devised by the non-profit, Jamestown-based Conservation Agency and endorsed by the Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

The ordinance is slated for debate by the Town Council on Monday, Nov. 2.

The Portsmouth and Middletown councils have both scheduled early November hearings on the draft, and a hearing date for the Newport Council is pending.

Mitchell, who is leading the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study for the Conservation Agency, says there are three to four coyote packs on Conanicut Island, and seven to eight on Aquidneck Island. Although there aren’t any Jamestown reports of coyotes biting humans, a Prudence Island youngster has reportedly suffered a bite, and a Warwick coyote has tested positive for rabies. The animals have also been blamed for pet killings – especially in Newport.

The ordinance would prohibit people and businesses from feeding any wild animal, defining “feeding” as “the intentional or unintentional providing of an ‘attractant’ [such as food products, garbage, pet food, grain or salt] that is accessible to a wild animal.” The ordinance defines “wild animals” as any species, including coyote, that isn’t normally domesticated.

While the ordinance addresses intentional food subsidies, the coexistence plan proposes a number of steps to address unintentional subsidies. For example, the plan advises the four island towns to enact ordinances requiring swift and proper roadkill and farm carcass disposal. This is particularly important to farmers because coyotes learn to feed on specific animals once they sample their carcasses (The NBCS has received a federal grant to assist the towns with this piece of the management plan.).

NBCS data demonstrate that food subsidies are responsible for most coyote problems. The animals learn to associate people with food, and they develop dangerous behaviors because they lose their natural fear of humans, while learning that any food provided to other animals (intentionally or unintentionally) will be a reliable source of food for them.

The NBCS has confirmed that humans are keeping coyotes fed (intentionally or otherwise) from data transmitted by the global positioning system radio collars attached to members of the Aquidneck Island and Conanicut Island packs.

‘Revolutionary’ data

Mitchell says that the use of GPS data for a coyote study is “revolutionary,” adding that “the NBCS research has generated some of the best data of any coyote study in the country.” Powerpoint slides graphically illustrate the effects of human subsidies: Enormous spikes wherever coyotes have discovered reliable food sources left intentionally or unintentionally by people.

“It’s crucial to understand that coyotes are incredibly territorial,” Mitchell said, using an area of eastern Middletown as an example. “They won’t cross the tiniest stream if it has been marked by another pack. But once they find a subsidy, like the pile of unburied sheep carcasses we found near a farm in Middletown, they will shrink their territory to the area around the subsidy. Then, they begin killing sheep. In Jamestown, there are hardly any sheep killed because farmers are careful to bury any that die – and the coyotes don’t acquire a taste for lamb chops.”

The GPS data on Aquidneck Island packs also demonstrates that “any time a pack leaves their territory, another pack will always fill the void,” Mitchell said, adding that this behavior would ensure the failure of eradication campaigns.

Coyotes have spread north and east from the southwestern U.S. as their principal predator – wolves – have disappeared. As a result, Mitchell said, “There are big coyote problems in lots of places besides Rhode Island – Florida, California, Colorado, New York and Illinois.”

The animals like to eat fruit, but “anywhere you have large deer populations, you’re likely to have dense populations of coyotes,” said Rich Wolfe, a Conservation Agency project manager assigned to the NBCS.

Mitchell noted that “the coyotes’ favorite food is woodchuck – and you won’t find many woodchucks in Jamestown anymore.”

Conversely, she added, coyotes control their own numbers when food is in short supply by expelling members from the pack, breeding less or not at all, and reducing birth numbers through fetal resorption in pregnant females. If food becomes abundant again, the pack will halt the downsizing behaviors.

Serious local concerns

One of the intentional food subsidies that led to serious local concerns occurred when Navy gate guards started feeding the pack inhabiting the base. One of the female coyotes, having learned that humans hand out food, left the base and tried to raise her family on the Cliff Walk – eventually relocating to Park Holm – where, sure enough, people offered food. The coyotes became so comfortable around humans in Park Holm that mothers would not allow their children to go out trick-or-treating.

“Anytime you feed coyotes, they become emboldened,” Mitchell said, noting she isn’t surprised by reports of coyotes standing outside the doors of peoples’ homes. “All the coyotes are saying is, ‘What do you have for me today?’ Those are the animals that are ‘problem coyotes’ – the ‘bad’ ones. Some of the ‘bad’ ones are individuals that were forced out of their packs and have to fend for themselves, but most of this ‘bad’ behavior is learned from people feeding them.”

The coyotes in the Navy pack were some of the boldest on the two islands; in fact, Mitchell said, much of the pack started exploring Miantonomi Park in 2006, frightening the residents.

“It’s so important to get the Navy on board [with the management plan],” Mitchell said, adding that she would be meeting with offi cials this week.

Besides limiting the availability of human food subsidies, road kill and farm carcasses, the Coyote Coexistence Plan also recommends the following measures to manage coyote populations:

• Enacting a Municipal Undomesticated Animal Feeding ordinance, which would only allow people to feed feral cats as long as “feeding occurs during daylight on elevated platforms … and that food remains on the platform no longer than 20 minutes per day.”

• Making coyotes feel unwelcome at all times “by people acting ‘big, mean and loud,’” as a coexistence program in Vancouver, B.C. advises.

• Educating people about safe coexistence with the information provided at such websites as the coyote pages maintained by the Conservation Agency (www.theconservationagency. org/coyote. htm) and the Department of Environmental Management (www. dem.ri.gov/programs/bnatres/fishwild/ pdf/coyotes.pdf).

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