The coyote is as much a symbol of the West as covered wagons, pioneers, and cowboys. Many of us grew up watching the cartoon version of the canid portrayed as Wile E. Coyote, never deterred despite catastrophic results in his pursuit of the roadrunner. For most people, that’s probably as close to a coyote as they’ve ever come. However, as we have increasingly encroached into territory that was once open land, it becomes common to come into contact with nature, including coyotes. Sometimes there are tragic results of this interaction, when family pets are killed by roaming coyotes.
Coyotes are now spread far and wide. According to a factsheet published by the USDA, they originally were most common on the Great Plains. They now range from Central America to the Arctic. At a time when many animal populations are declining, coyotes have flourished. The publication points out that there are more coyotes today than when the U.S. Constitution was signed.
While coyotes tend to be more active in the night, especially in the heat of summer, they are often seen around sunrise and sunset, and it is not uncommon to see them in broad daylight. When spotted, they look like a collie-type dog. They have pointed ears, a slender muzzle and a bushy tail and are brownish gray in color with a lighter belly and dark hair on their back and tail. Our coyotes out West are smaller than Eastern coyotes, with ours topping out about 20 or 30 pounds and Eastern coyotes growing as large as 45 pounds.
Coyotes, of course, have to eat and they are, according to Alan May, state director for the USDA Wildlife Services Program, opportunistic carnivores. That is likely the secret of their successful spread in habitat. He says coyotes will eat about anything from bird seed in your yard, trash out of your garbage can or left lying about, pet food, rotting material out of compost piles, and even green chile from a field. Hunting coyotes, he says, may work together to take down a dog as large as a German shepherd, a deer, or go after a cow lying down who has just given birth (they follow pregnant cows with the goal of eating the afterbirth, but may decide to attack the cow or calf ). But they’ll also eat poultry, snakes, birds, grasshoppers — or just plain grass, and may even target your family pets.
Coyotes do not only live in areas people have not yet settled. While they roam deserts and swamps, lowlands and highlands, they are also seen on city streets, including highly populated cities like Los Angeles and New York.
There seems to have been an increase lately in local pets being killed by coyotes. Coyotes have been seen brazenly hopping over rock walls into back yards and following people walking their dogs. Coyotes belong in New Mexico, but we need to be smart in order to reduce our interactions with them and protect our pets. We are part of the problem, inadvertently encouraging them to visit our territories. What should we be doing to discourage coyotes from looking to our yards for their next meal?
May and the USDA suggest several tactics. For one, don’t put out the welcome mat for these adaptable and intelligent canids. Feed your pets indoors, or if you must feed them outside, don’t leave the food out for long periods of time. Don’t offer sources of water to thirsty coyotes. If you feed birds, position the feeders so coyotes cannot get to them. They can be interested in the seed, the birds, and rodents that may also come for the feed.
Secure your garbage cans and don’t leave any edible garbage where coyotes can get to it. Remember, even compost can make a meal for a coyote, so keep compost areas secure as well.
Of course, it (almost) goes without saying that you shouldn’t purposely feed coyotes. A school in Colorado was having a problem with coyotes hanging around. It turned out kids were poking part of their lunches through the fence to feed the coyotes! An education program for the entire school included not feeding the wild animals and ensuring that food packaging and scraps were picked up to further discourage the coyotes.
If you know coyotes have been in your area, don’t let small children play outside unattended.
Fencing may deter coyotes, but it needs to be high enough — the USDA suggests at least six feet — with the bottom extending at least six inches below the ground to prevent them from digging under the fence.
To protect your pets, keep them indoors unless you are with them, especially at night. If your dog doesn’t have house privileges, make sure it has secure nighttime housing, perhaps in the garage. When you walk your dog, be sure to use a leash. Many people take advantage of our wide open desert spaces and let their dogs run free. (In fact, opponents to our first dog park suggested dog owners do just that.) Unfortunately, that could be just the invitation a group of coyotes needs to make your dog into dinner. Try the dog park instead if your dog wants to play and run off leash.
May says, “If you see a coyote in the distance and you’re walking a small dog, pick up the dog before the coyote approaches. Don’t be bending over when one is rapidly approaching or you are vulnerable, too.”
Martha Roditti, who lives in the Sonoma Ranch area, knows the pain of losing a beloved pet to predation all too well. Her small dog went out through the dog door one night and never came back in. In the morning, all that was left in the fenced back yard were intestines and what appeared to be coyote scat.
Roditti recently adopted a new pet and says, “Now that I have a new dog, I’m challenged with the problem of protecting her. Right now I’m not letting her out alone. The Southwest Environmental Center suggested a covered chain link fence for a dog run or a ‘Coyote Roller’ on top of my fence to keep them from jumping over. I would have to have a seven-foot fence to be really safe, but our neighborhood association will have to OK it. It is a terrible problem as many seniors have little dogs that are very vulnerable.”
According to their website, “Coyote Rollers are a patented ribbed roller that mounts to the top of your fence. When a coyote or other predator tries to jump your fence to attack your pets, it requires them to grab hold of the top of a fence. With Coyote Rollers in place, the animals will fall right off of your fence and will not be able to jump over.” Of course, this would only work if your wall is high enough that the coyote couldn’t just jump over without using the top. The company recommends a minimum height of six feet in order for their devices to work successfully.
In addition to seeing your pets as a source of a meal, May warns, “Coyotes see other canids, including pet dogs, in their territory as potential challenges or threats, so they will vigorously protect their territory. They will attack bigger dogs. Coyotes are extremely brave and aggressive, especially when they are breeding. People should never walk their dog off leash. When they are off leash they are more vulnerable — running further away from you.”
What should you do if you come in contact with a coyote? Experts, including May and the USDA, recommend you harass it.
May says, “Throw rocks or sticks, make a lot of noise, and aggressively chase the coyote away because after a while people who see coyotes regularly tend to be complacent. When they get complacent, the coyote gets braver. You want to condition them to stay away. If everyone did that, it would minimize the problems we have. Harassment is one of the keys to minimizing problems.”
These widespread canids have a high reproductive rate and their pups grow rapidly. Now is their breeding
time, which makes male coyotes even more aggressive in protecting their territories from other candids, including your dogs. Breeding takes place in February and March, with pups born 60 days later. As with any growing family, a pair of coyotes suddenly having four or five hungry pups will have a need for more food, and will fulfill it by hunting and scavenging. At six months of age, the pups will be learning to hunt. If these observant young pups discover that areas near people are good sources of food, that’s where they’ll go throughout their lives.
May says that removing coyotes from areas where they have become a problem is usually unsuccessful as coyotes will just return to their home ground. Killing them is also not a successful solution because other coyotes will just fill the territory. The best tactic is to make coyotes feel unwelcome. Remove food sources in your yard. Harass coyotes that are spotted near you and your pets. Work with neighbors to ensure they are all doing the same.
May asks people having problems with coyotes to report it. “We need to keep a good data base of what’s going on. It helps us gauge what’s happening out there. Especially if people see coyotes approach in an aggressive manner, we need to know about that. We need to know trends in that neighborhood so we can intervene if necessary. The less information we have, the less informed we are as a division.”
May adds, “We will welcome the opportunity to meet with groups of homeowners to discuss coyote biology, behavior, why they’re there, what they’re doing, harassment, and how best to do that. We want to assist in any way we can as that’s a huge part of success in these kinds of problems.”
You can call the Las Cruces office 527-6980 to report problems in the southwest part of the state or to request a neighborhood training. The USDA factsheet on coyotes can be accessed online at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/publications/wildlife_damage/content/printable_version/coyote_Dec2011.pdf.