2016-07-21 / Front Page

Runners Encounter Coyotes

By Jack Kelly

Early morning runners along Newport’s Eustis Avenue have recently been involved in at least two “close encounters” with coyotes.

In the early morning of Saturday, July 16, a female runner spotted a coyote close to her. When she stopped, he stopped, and when she began to run, he followed along and got closer to her. A motorist stopped to offer assistance and chased the coyote away. Though shaken, the woman was unhurt.

A second encounter occurred two days later on Monday, July 18, when another female runner was brushed from behind by the coyote and was almost knocked down.

“I looked to see who might have bumped me running by, and I was looking at this coyote!” the runner said. “He stared at me and didn’t seemed scared at all. I began to wave my arms and scream at him, ‘Get away, get out of here!’ At that point, he ran into nearby bushes.”

“Cliff became an immediate forensic tracking tool, leading us to places where he and the pack were obtaining food. In this way, police could eliminate these nuisances,” said wildlife biologist Dr. Numi Mitchell. 
(Photo Dave Hornoff/The Conservation Agency) “Cliff became an immediate forensic tracking tool, leading us to places where he and the pack were obtaining food. In this way, police could eliminate these nuisances,” said wildlife biologist Dr. Numi Mitchell. (Photo Dave Hornoff/The Conservation Agency) The frightened woman was unhurt and warned other folks in the area about her experience. There were no other reported incidents that morning.

These episodes have been ascribed to “Cliff,” a young coyote captured on Cliff Avenue in the spring. At that time, the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study (NBCS) was contacted by the Middletown Police Department regarding complaints of bold coyotes in that neighborhood. Wildlife biologist Dr. Numi Mitchell, with the NBCS, was aware of the pack, which claims a 3.5-square-mile territory overlapping the Newport-Middletown line.

Traps were set, and shortly thereafter Cliff was captured. He was tranquilized, weighed, measured, and blood tests were taken. He was fitted with a combination radio-tracking/ GPS collar and released.

The number of coyotes in a pack is linked to the available food supply. 
(Photo by Jack Kelly) The number of coyotes in a pack is linked to the available food supply. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Over the last few months, Cliff has become habituated. “He has become so tame that it looks like folks are throwing him food,” said Mitchell.

Cliff’s collar has recorded and charted high coyote activity in the past week in an area of Newport defined by Catherine Street to the north, Memorial Boulevard to the south, Bellevue Avenue to the west, and Red Cross Avenue to the east. The data indicates that there is a “hot feeding zone” within this area and may be one of the reasons why Cliff has become so habituated.

Both runners made reports to the Newport Police Department, and the R.I. Department of Public Health contacted the second runner because she had been touched by a wild animal. The agency suggested that she should receive the rabies vaccine out of an abundance of caution. Although the coyote did not bite or scratch her, she did have open insect bites on her legs and saliva from the animal may have made its way there.

“I spoke to my primary care physician and the staff at Newport Hospital, and though the risk was slim, they suggested I get the four-shot treatment,” she said.

According to scientific studies and published accounts, rabies in coyotes is very rare. The last known case in Rhode Island occurred several years ago in Warwick. There has never been a case of coyote rabies on Aquidneck Island.

Mitchell was alarmed at the reports from the runners and quickly assembled a team to begin aversive coyote tactics (ACT). At 5 a.m. on Tuesday, July 19, Mitchell, along with NBCS staff and coyote behavior aversion specialist Roland Bellotti, began to track Cliff through GPS.

“We found Cliff moving east through the Eustis Avenue area toward the center of the pack’s territory in Middletown,” Mitchell said. “When we had safe shots away from homes and people, Roland fired a load of rubber buckshot into Cliff’s hindquarters. He was able to do this twice. After we hit him on both occasions, we chased after him, throwing rocks.”

Mitchell believes that these actions will convince the animal to steer clear of humans. “However, if there is another incident, we will employ lethal force.”

Lethal force is considered a last resort, because decades of scientific data and research shows that it can lead to rapid growth in coyote populations. Data indicates that during the 130 years of coyote eradication programs, none has been successful.

“One of the results of removing a pack or culling their numbers to the point where they can no longer defend their territory is that transients claim the territory. These animals may be more problematic than the original miscreants, and contribute to the breakdown in surrounding pack territories,” Mitchell added.

However, lethal force has been used in the past few years to remove problematic and aggressive coyotes in some Middletown neighborhoods, which were habituated by humans feeding them.

She also told Newport This Week that problem coyotes are shot on a fairly regular basis by individuals who are permitted to protect livestock and poultry on island farms. The vast majority of the animals that have been killed over the past few years are most likely transients. There is no law or ordinance that requires reporting to an agency, as they are considered nuisance animals.

The biologist urged anyone who has an unusual encounter with a coyote to immediately contact local police.

Feeding Coyotes Aggravates Problems

Coyotes have been a hot-button issue on Aquidneck Island in the past decade, and debates have raged across the island on how to best deal with the increase in coyote-related incidents.

A coyote management plan proposed by the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study (NBCS) was implemented, which involved enacting island-wide ordinances against the feeding of coyotes, cooperating with island law enforcement agencies in monitoring the coyote population, and educating the general public on the behaviors of these animals through methods such as a lecture series and a website, coyotesmarts.org. This program is known as the Best Coyote Management Practices, or BCMP.

Through efforts led by wildlife biologist Dr. Numi Mitchell and funded by private donations, it has been determined that food sources available to coyotes are directly linked to both population growth and the problematic, aggressive behaviors of the animals in local neighborhoods.

“Coyotes are born with an innate fear of humans. If they are directly fed by people or obtain food sources from human populated areas, they lose this fear and become habituated to these sources,” Mitchell said. “The other consequence of human-supplemented diets is a dramatic increase in litter sizes, because the more females consume, the more fertile they become.”

The normal litter size for a female on a natural diet is 2-5 pups, but litters of up to 8 pups were being born across the island. Normal pack sizes ranged from 3-10 individuals in 2005 and only 1-3 pups were accepted into the pack, with the rest being forced out and becoming “transients, who live on the fringes of pack territories and forage where they can. These animals are highly susceptible to becoming habituated and eventually problematic if fed by humans either intentionally or inadvertently.

Mitchell’s group trapped a number of coyotes across the island, and through the use of radio tracking collars, they were able to establish a number of “feeding zones” used by various packs. They included unsecured dumpsters, compost piles, road kill collection points, and dead farm animal burial sites. Researchers also discovered that many people were leaving pet food out for their domesticated animals and the coyotes were attracted to these areas, sometimes killing cats and small dogs.

Another result of the study showed that pack territories overlapped city and town boundaries, requiring a concerted effort from all three island communities in combating these issues.

For more information, visit CoyoteSmarts.org or theconservationagency.org.

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