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for people who care about the West

Coyotes move into Colorado's Front Range

Residents and coyotes clash in the suburbs

 

On a summer's evening, Greenwood Village, Colo., glimmers with life. Redwing blackbirds clamor from cattails backed by resplendent cottonwoods and tasteful mansions. Ducklings clamber over rocks and plop into ponds, following their parents. The still-snowy Rocky Mountains gleam vividly to the West, as if there weren't 200,000 human beings between us and them.

Despite its location off Interstate 25 just south of Denver, this place is an oasis. Electrical lines are buried, the 14,000 human residents enjoy a median family income of $145,802, and a former Villager named Marjorie Perry donated a swath of land for a nature preserve so verdant it conjures up a symphony as you walk through it. Deer have been sighted in the neighborhood, and hawks. And coyotes. A whole lot of coyotes.

And that's where the needle slides off the record.

Controversy flared in this idyllic community in January 2009, after a coyote reportedly jumped on, but didn't bite, a 14-year-old boy in one of Greenwood Village's parks. The Village's government responded by sanctioning the killing of coyotes it deemed dangerous -- first by a contractor and now by the police. This pitted neighbor against neighbor, generated death threats to the contractor, and became, in the words of one lifelong resident, "the most contentious issue I have seen in Greenwood Village."

And while the Village garnered the most headlines, other communities along Colorado's urban Front Range have also seen more coyotes in recent years. Although nobody knows exactly how many there are, "their presence is much higher than what we've seen in the past," says Colorado Division of Wildlife spokeswoman Jennifer Churchill. "Coyotes in the eastern plains will be a mile away before you get out of your truck. They're used to being shot at out there. Here, they'll just check you out to see what you're doing."

Coyotes are notoriously resilient. One study shows that pups born in populations that are hunted or trapped are more likely to survive into adulthood than those born to undisturbed populations. Coyotes have been known to dig up traps intended to catch them and urinate and defecate on the offending contraptions. They have both admirers and detractors, but everyone agrees on one thing: These intelligent, yellow-eyed canids are virtually indestructible -- something long recognized in Native American tales of the trickster Coyote, who dies and then returns to life.

"If we poured concrete over the entire state of Colorado, maybe we'd get rid of coyotes," says Churchill. "But maybe not even then."

Coyotes used to bite an average of one person per year along the Front Range, Churchill says, but since 2008, 10 people have been bitten by coyotes.

Five attacks were reported between December 2008 and March 2009. Three weeks before the Greenwood Village incident, a coyote trotted out of the cattails onto a golf course in Erie and bit a 9-year-old boy, who defended himself with a snowboard: "I whacked him," he told a local TV station. The next month, a Broomfield woman was playing Frisbee with her dog when a coyote appeared; she called it to her, extended her hand, and got nipped twice. The following month, also in Broomfield, an off-leash dog began chasing one coyote while another bit the dog-owner's arm. Also that month, two coyotes attacked a woman's off-leash Labrador just after she left her house in southeast Denver. When the woman tried to intervene, she was scratched and bitten.

The time of year was a contributing factor. "From January through March, they're pairing up and defensive," says Division of Wildlife officer Claire Secrist. And hungry, too: During the winter, food sources like berries aren't available. When subdivisions are built on traditional coyote habitat, confrontations between humans and coyotes tend to be intensified. Gardens, shade trees and water attract squirrels and other small animals, which in turn attract coyotes, whose weight can range between 25-35 pounds.

Shortly after the Broomfield attacks, marksmen hired by the Division of Wildlife killed five coyotes in the area. They also pursued the coyotes in Denver but never found them. As for Erie, "I believe we removed one coyote in that area after that incident," says Churchill.

Other encounters didn't involve attacks, but were nonetheless alarming. A family of coyotes denned underneath the porch of an elderly Lakewood woman in June 2008, dining on local dogs and cats; their reluctant hostess was afraid to leave her house. The DOW hosted a daylong symposium early in 2009 to encourage municipal officials to formulate their own plans to deal with the problem. How do you smooth out relations between arguably the two most successful omnivores on the continent?

Aurora, a city of 330,000 people on Denver's eastern border, emphasizes education:

"We do a full-court press," says Mary Ann Bonnell, Aurora's senior natural resources specialist. At homeowners' meetings and in brochures, residents are urged not to feed coyotes, and to keep their dogs on leash. As Churchill points out: "Fifty percent of the incidents where a human gets injured involve an off-leash dog."

"The people who love coyotes inappropriately are as bad as those that hate them," says Bonnell. "They're the ones who are 'cootchy-coo'-ing them onto the back porch, feeding them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."

Bonnell also urges Aurora residents to scare coyotes away -- by clapping their hands, stomping their feet, shouting or (her favorite) noisily shaking an Altoids tin filled with pennies. "If you see one in the wilderness, that's fine. But if it's walking down a suburban street, casing the joint, it's not something you should be a passive observer of. If you don't scare them off, I think that does create a different kind of coyote."

Bonnell listens to the owners of $600,000 homes yell that golf courses are no place for wildlife, and receives phone messages like this one, from a resident of a low-income housing development: "There's a lotta coyotes over here. ...They're all over the place, chasing rabbits and shit. ... If you walked up on them they'd probably tear your ass up."

The city of Denver, which has more than 600,000 human inhabitants, has not experienced the sharp recent increase in coyote incidents reported by the suburbs, perhaps because the city proper has less open space. Still, Denver is formulating a coyote plan with the same educational emphasis as Aurora, Broomfield and Centennial, three communities whose coyote control program is run with the help of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. Like those suburbs, Denver doesn't rule out calling in the state Division of Wildlife to kill coyotes seen as dangerous. In January, after a coyote trotted toward a 4-year-old child in City Park, DOW officers killed it. They also killed a coyote that bit a 12-year-old boy in the western suburb of Golden in April.

To better understand how to reduce conflicts, a group of Front Range communities has funded research to analyze 3,600 local human-coyote encounters over the laFst five years. Over 80 percent of these were simply coyote sightings. This particular study, which will conclude in about a year, will add to the knowledge generated by studies of coyotes in a range of cities, extending as far east as Newport, R.I. -- where coyotes are thick in the mansion district.

"I thought we'd find just a few, and that they'd all be problem animals, but a whole new world opened up," says Stan Gehrt, an Ohio State University biologist and the lead researcher in a 10-year-old ongoing study in Chicago. The native coyotes withdrew from the rapidly growing metropolis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But within decades they were back -- and not just in Chicago. Once concentrated in the High Plains and the Southwest, coyotes have spent the last century moving east even as wolves and cougar populations were being decimated. Coyotes are now found in all 49 mainland states. It's an expansion that has been called "unparalleled by any other species of terrestrial mammal in recent history."

"We've had easily hundreds -- but more likely thousands -- of coyotes in the Chicago metro area, along with 9 million people," said Gehrt. Coyotes comprehend traffic patterns, for example. "They look in the right direction before they cross the road. I had totally underestimated them. I still underestimate them."

The number of nuisance coyotes trapped in the Chicago area increased sharply between 1990 and 2002, but Gehrt says in the last decade there has been "at the most, possibly one bite" to a human.

Southern California, where coyotes are also native, is another story. Perhaps because Los Angeles is surrounded by -- and interspersed with -- so much wild country, coyotes thrived even as the city ballooned. In 1937-'38, Los Angeles County offered a $1 bounty on coyotes. By 1961, they were seen along the edges of movie stars' estates, living "lives of ease and luxury beyond the wildest dreams of their hardscrabble ancestors," according to Robert Froman, author of The Nerve of Some Animals.

Some 136 Californians reported being injured by coyotes between 1961 and 2007, according to Robert Timm and Rex Baker in their 2007 paper, A History of Urban Coyote Problems. The most tragic of these was the case of toddler Kelly Keen, who was bitten in her driveway in Glendale in 1981 and dragged across the street before her parents rescued her and rushed her to the hospital, to no avail. Her death spurred L.A. county officials to trap and shoot 55 coyotes within a half-mile radius of the attack site in 80 days.

Glendale still kills problem coyotes, but the local government also provides education on its website, advising people not to put out their trash the night before pickup, for example, but to wait until the morning.

The only other recorded North American fatality involving coyotes occurred last October, when a 19-year-old woman was killed in Nova Scotia's Cape Breton National Highlands Park. Some theorize that the animals involved were wolf-coyote hybrids.

Despite tragedies like these, statistics don't show coyotes as a significant public safety threat. The only recorded coyote bite in the history of Aurora occurred in 2009, the same year that Aurorans were bitten by domestic dogs 207 times. To add further perspective, Bonnell points out that across the nation, an average of 2.18 people are killed by vending machines every year.

And after the upswing in coyote bites in the Denver area during 2008-'09, things have calmed down again, with only one reported bite so far this year (the 12-year-old Golden boy). "I'd hope the decline is because of our awareness," says Churchill, noting that the year isn't over yet. She adds that a report of a rabid coyote in the Southwestern Colorado town of Cortez in November "at this point is not a cause for undue concern" to Front Rangers.

Unlike wolves, coyotes evolved to eat animals smaller than themselves -- a fact that endears them to some suburbanites. Bonnell recently got two phone calls "lamenting the fact that the coyotes are gone, because now there are raccoons and skunks. People don't realize the ecosystem services that coyotes provide. They do a terrific job of managing economically damaging species. They're the middle-management predators."

That's fine if you're trying to rid your yard of skunks, but not so good if your Bichon Frise gets mauled. Which brings us back to Greenwood Village, where animal control specialist Jay Stewart has snared, trapped or shot close to 200 coyotes since 1993 -- mostly on behalf of private residents. In 2007, under contract for the city of Greenwood Village, Stewart placed rubber-padded leg-hold traps in the Marjorie Perry Nature Preserve. Although he'd posted warning signs, he caught two off-leash dogs, raising the ire of local residents.

He was hired again early in 2009, after the incident with the 14-year-old boy. Stewart shot the coyote he believed was responsible. Following other coyote complaints, he showed up at the crack of dawn in local parks and other open areas to dispatch the culprits, only to have his efforts sabotaged by hazers, who scared the coyotes away.

Stewart professes respect for coyotes -- "They're going to be here long after we're gone" -- and says he followed the instructions of the Greenwood Village City Council and focused only on problem animals.

"I was trying to do the right thing, and the animal-rights people just tried to make it as ugly as possible," he says. His traps were cut, and he says he received 29 death threats, including one that described his home and his two mules in intimidating detail.

Tempers ran so high in Greenwood Village that Stewart was asked to step down a couple of months after he began. The municipal police took over coyote control, shooting eight between mid-November 2009 and Jan. 27, 2010. (No coyotes have been killed since then.) Lt. Joe Harvey says "things have quieted down a lot," adding that the police have done more and more hazing. Still, for coyotes that appear aggressive, lethal control remains an option.

"When it comes down to it, we're going to err on the side of reducing the fear of the citizens," says Harvey. Some residents speculate that the city is also trying to avoid the litigious impulses likely to surface if a Villager were to get hurt by a coyote. "People look for the deep pockets," says one, "and Greenwood Village has the deep pockets."

Says Jay Tutchton, a lawyer for WildEarth Guardians, resident of adjoining Centennial, and a member of a vocal group of critics of the city's coyote policy, "Greenwood Village's fear of coyotes is so delusional. ... I think the city would like to preserve the pretty scenery without any of the inconvenient residents."