2015-10-01 / News

Biologist tracks coyotes to food sources

An alpha female coyote is spotted crossing a residential yard in Newport. 
Otter Brown | The Conservation Agency An alpha female coyote is spotted crossing a residential yard in Newport. Otter Brown | The Conservation Agency In 2011, Middletown became the first Aquidneck Island community to adopt an ordinance that prohibits residents from feeding wildlife. The law was created in response to concerns about the growing presence of coyotes. Four years later, Middletown has become the first community in the country to use forensic tracking to identify food sources that may be attracting coyotes.

Forensic tracking is a term coined by Dr. Numi Mitchell, a Jamestown biologist who directs the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study. The program uses hightech GPS collars to plot the movements of coyotes and uncover their food sources. The agency has been researching coyote activity on Aquidneck Island over the past decade to determine what is influencing the increasing population. Tracking data has shown that human behavior, especially feeding, has been a major reason for the rapid growth.

In 2013, Mitchell’s agency joined forces with other local environmental groups to raise public awareness about coyotes and encourage the best management practices. Among the groups are the Potter League for Animals, Norman Bird Sanctuary, Aquidneck Land Trust and Rhode Island Natural History Survey.

In response to increased complaints in several neighborhoods, the stakeholders purchased three new state-of-the-art collars that employ satellite and cellphone technology. The collars can be programmed to report at intervals as short as one minute, making them ideal for pinpointing food sources. The Middletown, Newport and Portsmouth police departments were asked to provide their coyote complaints to help determine the best locations to deploy the collars. Although Mitchell is focused on Aquidneck Island, she says the tracking program might return to Jamestown in the near future. She wants to start tracking the Beavertail pack, but first has to clear the project with local and state officials.

Back on the east side of the Newport Bridge, one particular neighborhood north of the Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown appears to be a major hotspot for coyote activity. After one coyote in the area was trapped and collared, Mitchell says the data provided irrefutable evidence of food subsidies being provided to coyotes at a local farm with pigs. Unprotected feed was attracting coyotes, which had to cross through residential neighborhoods to get to the farm. The food source, which was 300 feet from a neighborhood, created a hub of coyote activity. The farmer, who was unaware of the problems, agreed to make changes to his feeding practices.

“Essentially, we’re following the breadcrumb trails left by coyotes as they frequent their favorite dining spots,” said Mitchell.

Farms are often a source of food subsidies for coyotes, says Mitchell, not only because of livestock feed, but also the animals themselves. If not properly housed, particularly at night, small livestock such as poultry and sheep can be highly vulnerable to coyote attacks. And larger livestock carcasses, if not properly disposed of, can sustain a coyote pack for weeks.

The tracking also turned up another food source that is popular with coyotes: a composting operation. The managers were notified about the problem and have agreed to bury food scraps under at least 2 feet of loam.

In nearby Newport, another collared coyote revealed that the pack routinely visits the Fort Adams and Kings Beach boat ramps. The old habit of cleaning fish at the ramp and leaving the remains in the shallows was teaching coyotes to stop by every night in search of an evening meal, says Mitchell.

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