BEL AIR -- Just a few miles from the sprawl of suburbia, coyotes -- the sly critters of Wild West legend -- have been stalking hillside farms by night and devouring sheep.
Farmers have heard the nocturnal predators' unmistakable yelps, spotted them scurrying across pastures and barnyards at dawn and dusk, seen their remains in traps and awakened to find the carnage they leave behind.
In the Churchville and Darlington areas, just northeast of the county seat here, farmers said last week that they have lost some 50 sheep to coyotes since last fall. The attacks apparently mark the first known cases of coyotes killing livestock in Maryland.
Michael Connell, whose 205 ewes and 120 lambs graze on 90 acres at his Cedar Hill Farm, couldn't believe it at first.
"Until one was trapped, I didn't believe it was a coyote getting to the flock," says Mr. Connell, who figures the predators have killed off at least a dozen of his lambs.
"I said, 'No way' until the trapper got one," he adds, "and that made me a believer."
Coyotes made a believer of Regina Stancill, too -- and prompted her to give up her flock of sheep.
Mrs. Stancill lost two pygmy goats and six or seven lambs from her flock of 30 last spring. She still shudders at the carnage.
"I got so very discouraged, I sold off all my sheep," she says. "The last one killed was about 100 pounds, and there wasn't much left besides some fleece, the head, rib cage and some bones" -- and a coyote trademark, a hole at the throat.
Dogs will bite any part of the anatomy, but a coyote instinctively goes for the jugular.
With live sheep valued at $1.25 a pound, Mrs. Stancill says, she simply couldn't afford the coyotes' destruction.
And while experts say the varmints pose no threat to humans, Mrs. Stancill adds: "Once they've killed some of your flock, you don't sleep very well at night. You hear every sound and jump out of bed to go outside, but it's pitch dark. You can't just go blasting away with your gun. You'd kill all the sheep that way."
State officials say Maryland's coyote population remains unknown, but the number of reported sightings has increased over the past few years.
The Eastern coyote, a version just as deadly as its cousin that roams the prairies of the West, is believed to be migrating into the state from southern Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Most coyote sightings have been reported along the Susquehanna River in Harford and Cecil counties, along the Monocacy River in Frederick County and in the Dans Mountain area in Allegany County.
Maryland is one of the last states to see a migration of coyotes, which had been restricted to west of the Mississippi River at the turn of the century.
Farmers say the creatures spotted in these parts are pointy-eared, with long, narrow snouts and a body weight of about 30 pounds.
And they move very quickly.
Just ask Gene Umbarger, a neighbor of the Stancills.
Mr. Umbarger, who lost 10 or 11 lambs to coyotes in a few nights last month, recalls spotting one of the killers.
"I saw the critter last winter and didn't have my gun with me," he says. "I tried to run him down with my truck, but couldn't catch him."
Mr. Umbarger has pared his flock from 70 to about 20 and has added a female donkey named Tinsel to his farmyard to guard the sheep.
So far, he says, Tinsel has apparently prevented coyote attacks, as donkeys reportedly have done in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
But Mr. Umbarger doesn't underestimate the bane of his animals.
"We've moved our flock up between the barn and the house and keep the outside lights on," he says. "We've had coyotes strike and come back the next night to finish the job. I've seen them down in the pasture at night. My high-powered light picks up their eyes, but they're very shrewd."
Whether they rely on a speeding pickup truck, traps, bright lights or even donkeys, farmers like Mr. Umbarger apparently will have to devise their own means to control coyotes.
Neither the state nor Harford County plans any measures to control the spread of coyotes, officials say.
Some farmers, like Woody and Carla Brumfield, have tried to keep their sheep out of coyotes' reach.
The Brumfields decided to move their flock into a pen near their barn after losing some 15 lambs, two of them within the last six weeks.
"You've just got to adjust to protect your animals," says Mrs. Brumfield.
But Steve Wampler, an environmental protection specialist at Aberdeen Proving Ground, doubts humans will prove any match for the sly coyotes.
"They're probably here to stay," says Mr. Wampler. "They're very elusive and difficult to manage, but you have to learn to live with them."