They show up each night, like clockwork: 7 p.m., midnight, 5 a.m. They howl in packs of a dozen or more, circling the farm’s perimeter, watching and waiting. The farmer, Ramona Huff of Gryffon’s Aerie in North Garden, raising her sheep and cattle in a bowl-shaped valley surrounded by wooded foothills, has tried everything—fencing, trapping, guard animals—but the coyotes always learn, and they are insatiable and persistent. Last year, they devoured 30 lambs. “They’re thick as thieves here,” said Huff, “and they’re at the top of the food chain.”
Though the species Canis latrans (meaning “barking dog”) has existed for over a million years, the coyote only arrived in Virginia from the north and west in substantial numbers in the last few decades. The predator’s steady eastward migration is due in part to the elimination of larger carnivores, such as wolves, from the region, as well as its adaptability to a variety of habitats, from dense forests to farmland to suburban crawl spaces. Their infiltration is now total: since 2004, coyotes have inhabited every county in the state.
Omnivorous and opportunistic, coyotes rarely miss a meal. While they favor small mammals like rodents, and take larger prey like deer, calves, goats, and sheep when available, they also eat birds and snakes, fruits, vegetables, and berries. Rabbits are a staple, watermelon a favorite, and they’ll happily satisfy themselves with human-provided edibles such as house cats, garbage, and road kill. The suburbs often provide just as much to eat as the forest, and when coyotes find a reliable source of food, they settle in.
Of late, coyotes have settled into Old Trail Village in Crozet. Residents have spotted the creatures on the walking path that runs past the lake and golf course near Golf Drive. Diane Harner, who lives in a condominium overlooking the lake, spied one from her deck while chatting with a neighbor. “He was the size of a medium dog, maybe 35 pounds,” she said. “He looked up and saw us, and darted down the path and into the woods.” Harner doesn’t see coyotes as a threat to people, “though I wouldn’t want to have a cat out in the back yard.”
While the coat of western coyotes is commonly tan or light brown, their eastern cousins tend toward gray, often mixed with red, dark brown, or black because of historical inbreeding with dogs as the coyotes migrated across the U.S. Compared to gray wolves, coyotes are thinner and lighter, and they have longer snouts, smaller nose pads, and taller, pointier ears. Word to the wise: farmers, hunters, and game commission biologists pronounce it “ky-oat” more often than not.
Recent consumer media has trumpeted the invasion of a brand new species, a coyote-wolf mix dubbed the “coywolf,” a substantially larger animal than the 20- to 30-pound western coyote. However, scientists such as Michael Fies, zoologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), dispute the notion of a separate species.
“We have coyotes here, not coywolves,” said Fies. “They’re not some hybrid super-species, but they have evolved.” Interbreeding with Canadian wolves likely took place a century ago, and the degree of genetic mixing found in coyotes today varies by area of the country. In Virginia, DNA testing shows the animals to be about 85% coyote, 2% wolf, and 13% dog, and none has been found to be solely a coyote/wolf mix. The wolf genes have served to bump the average eastern coyote’s weight to between 40 and 45 pounds, and its now-bigger skull and jaws allow it to take down larger targets, such as full-size deer.
The eastern coyote’s larger size may contribute to it being mistaken by townsfolk for a wolf. “A male coyote at 45 pounds is a very large animal,” said Fies. “They look bigger than they are, and it’s hard for the average person to judge.”
Amy Yancey startled a larger coyote while running with her leashed dog on the walking trail as it winds through the woods back toward Old Trail Drive. “He had that low, predatory slink, pretty distinctive of coyotes,” she said of the animal, “definitely not a dog or a bobcat.” Yancey has had plenty of experience with coyotes, none of it good. Her dog, a Jack Russell Terrier, was bred on a farm in Tennessee, and both its mother and a litter mate were killed by coyotes as adults. “I think people need to be aware, especially if one or two coyotes expands into a pack, that there’s some risk, just as we’d want to be aware if there was a bear prowling around,” Yancey said.
Wile E. Coyote
Though a person’s first reaction to a coyote sighting may be to call Animal Control, that agency is not empowered to handle coyotes. “We only respond to domestic animal issues,” explained Albemarle County Animal Control Officer Larry Crickenberger. Abandoned or dangerous dogs and cats fall under their purview, but coyotes are regulated by the DGIF, which is tasked with conserving wildlife populations and habitats as well as protecting people in human-wildlife conflicts.
Still, in the 40 years Crickenberger has been on the job, he’s seen changes in animal behavior that he attributes to humans. “It used to be that a deer sighting was a rare treat,” he said. “Now their habits are changing—we see them eating from the deck in the daytime. We keep building, and wildlife gets acclimated to having people around.” His most urgent message to nature lovers is: never handle a wild creature, no matter how cute and furry it may look.
The DGIF categorizes coyotes as a “nuisance” species, defined by the state as “those committing depredation upon agricultural crops, wildlife, livestock or other property, or when concentrated in numbers and manners constituting a health hazard or other nuisance.” As such, the state allows continuous open season on coyotes, so they may be hunted year-round at any time of day. The single exception, still in place under historic “blue laws,” is that a coyote may not be shot with a gun on public land on a Sunday.
The stealth, cunning, and keen sense of smell of coyotes, combined with typically nocturnal habits, make them notoriously difficult to shoot. Hunters may use calls, decoys, or dogs to attract and locate them, but in populated areas like neighborhoods or public parks, the use of firearms is dangerous and often illegal. Traps, such as snares and leg hold traps, can be effective if the trapper can identify the paths and patterns of the coyotes, but these can inadvertently catch other wildlife, domestic dogs, or even humans.
As for the recent sightings in Old Trail Village, the neighborhood’s management would not comment for this story about whether there is a protocol for dealing with coyotes in the community. Given their suspected location near housing tracts and recreational areas, the options are few. Even if the neighborhood wanted the animals removed, the area is too populated for hunting with firearms, and private “critter removal” agencies are hesitant to set traps in places where pets or children may stumble upon them accidentally.
Steve Colvin has run Colvin’s Animal Damage Control service for 25 years and has seen the coyote problem steadily increase in Albemarle and surrounding counties. “I get calls every week about coyotes, either sightings or livestock kills, including one just last week from a lady in Crozet,” said Colvin. “She was worried about her cats and her chickens, and we set traps and caught two coyotes in two nights.”
Colvin is adamant about the threat coyotes pose. “They are changing the face of Virginia wildlife,” he said, “in particular the deer and red fox populations.” Hunting coyotes at night requires special equipment such as night vision eyewear and silencers for weapons. “My daughter and I have caught and killed 130 coyotes just since last September, and it’s going to keep getting worse no matter what we do.”
Though hunting coyotes is a common practice, the eradication route has not proven particularly effective. According to animal predation research, removing only a small number of coyotes doesn’t help, and it may worsen the problem. Studies suggest that 60 percent or more of a given coyote population would have to be eliminated to change their impact on an area.
Researchers also warn against removing coyotes who are not causing a problem, as the void may be filled by others who are more aggressive. Though some counties (not including Albemarle) offer rewards for hunting coyotes, biologists say that bounty programs—in which hunters are paid between $25 and $75 per dead animal—don’t work.
“There is a 150-year record of total failure of bounty programs,” said Fies of the DGIF. “It’s much better to use a targeted approach where we work with individual livestock producers to trap and remove animals. Trying to reduce the population at the county level is futile.”
If hunting coyotes is at best a temporary solution, then what else can be done? Conservation groups such as Project Coyote, a national nonprofit organization based in California, encourage nonlethal methods of coyote control and advocate coexistence between predators and livestock owners. These groups, along with professionals at the DGIF, suggest that farmers and ranchers try to prevent damage by producing livestock in confinement or herding them into pens at night and by constructing electric fences around grazing animals.
Certain breeds of guard dog can be effective deterrents, as can guard llamas and guard donkeys, both of which are alert and protective when combined with a livestock herd. Other methods include sonic, visual, odor, and taste repellents, to make the coyotes’ nightly visits all the more unpleasant. Rachel Willis, co-owner of Black Twig sheep farm in western Crozet, said that a combination of well-trained livestock guardian dogs—she owns both Maremma and Karakachan breeds—and pulling the flock in behind electric fencing at night has worked for her so far.
“My dogs are constantly prowling the perimeter of our fields, and often barking out there,” she said, “and I know we’ve probably been lucky not to have a coyote problem yet.” The farm’s rocky, mountaintop location may also make it a less hospitable target.
In contrast, the owners of Gryffon’s Aerie are protecting a massive area surrounded by forest, with lots of hiding places for the predators. “We tried donkeys, but the coyotes wore them down,” said Huff. “It was divide and conquer—they’d lure the donkeys off, split up the herd.” She also tried traps, but the coyotes are intelligent and learn what to avoid. “They will not allow themselves to be trapped humanely,” she said. “They are brutal.”
In this, farmers and ranchers agree: people who don’t live under the threat of coyotes are blinded to the problem. “I know a lot of people want everything to live in perfect harmony,” said Huff, “but the coyotes don’t see it that way. It’s a very unbalanced ecosystem when coyotes come into an area and take over.”
Even with all of the trouble, Huff doesn’t believe they are a threat to people. “They’re too crafty. They aren’t looking for a fight, they’re looking for the easy pick.” Nonetheless, she warns against underestimating them. “If people are seeing one coyote, don’t think that’s it. There is no doubt a pack around—that particular one is just the bravest.”
Mike Fies of the DGIF agrees. “Coyotes are much, much more numerous in our area than people realize,” he said, “and in many cases they were probably living in certain regions before people built golf courses or sheep farms there.” Researchers put estimates between 50,000 and 100,000 animals statewide. Coyotes are naturally wary of humans and prefer to stay out of sight, so biologists say the only real concern—in terms of a threat to humans—arises when people begin feeding them, either intentionally or unintentionally.
“Over time, if they’re fed, they can become increasingly bold or more tolerant of humans, and then even dangerous when they lose their fear completely,” said Fies, and attacks on humans, while rare, do happen. He believes coyotes are close to reaching their natural capacity on open land, but there is still room in the urban areas for them to expand their numbers. “The vast majority of coyotes don’t cause anyone any trouble whatsoever, and the rare instances of problems in neighborhoods are often totally preventable.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes that “[a]s humans have expanded where they live, the ranges of most mammalian predators have gotten smaller. The coyote is an exception.” These wily, adaptable creatures are able to thrive in close proximity to farms, suburbs, and even cities. One key to a peaceful coexistence between coyotes and people will be for people to recognize and respect the “wild” nature of wildlife.
Keep Wildlife Wild
Make sure you are not desensitizing coyotes to the presence of humans. They are commonly seen during the day in urban and suburban areas if attracted there by a food source or an easily accessed area to make a den, such as under porches/decks, crawl spaces or outbuildings. The best way to prevent them from becoming a problem is to not give them a reason to come. (Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries)
- If you are feeding coyotes, stop. Feeding causes them to lose their natural fear of humans.
- Keep trash inside until the morning of trash pick-up or place trash in an animal-proof container, such as a metal trashcan with latches on the lids.
- Do not leave pet food outside; keep pet feeding areas clean.
- Remove bird feeders when problem species such as mice or squirrels have been seen around them.
- Close up all openings under and into your buildings. Coyotes look for places to den and raise their young – don’t give them that opportunity.
- Clear fallen fruit from around trees.
- Keep brushy areas in your yard cut down to limit cover for coyotes.
- Install coyote-proof fencing to protect unsupervised pets.
- Keep small pets inside and on a leash when outside; they may be viewed by a coyote as prey. Larger dogs are viewed as a threat particularly from January to June while mating and birthing pups.
- Pass along this information to your neighbors. If anyone in the neighborhood is feeding wildlife directly, or indirectly, it can cause trouble for everybody.
- Note that it is illegal in the State of Virginia to trap and relocate an animal to another area.
- Contact your local health department if an animal exhibits signs of rabies such as stumbling, foaming at the mouth or aggression.
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