Lock up the pets: Maryland coyote population soars

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KEYSERS RIDGE - Strange things are happening in the hills of Western Maryland. There was the stillborn calf at Bob Bender's farm, for example - chewed up and dragged halfway across a pasture before Bender could retrieve it.

And there were Bernadine Friend's two cats - vanished six weeks ago, two days apart, each time after Friend heard a piercing scream from amid the trees.

The suspect is Maryland's wiliest newcomer: the coyote.

Not that the dog-like wild animal has never been seen here before, but the coyote population is growing. Exploding, says Robert Colona, a wildlife biologist at the state Department of Natural Resources and the DNR's proclaimed coyote expert.

Colona says the state's coyote population will grow by 210 percent in the next decade and might begin to threaten small pets and livestock from farms here in Garrett County to chicken houses on the Eastern Shore.

"They'll be a dominant part of our wildlife community," he says. "And once the coyotes become established, people will have to change. Cats and dogs allowed to roam free in areas where there are coyotes may not come home."

No great cause for alarm, says the expert, adding that the average Marylander will rarely see a coyote, partly because the animals are so frightened of humans.

But there have already been sightings in every county in the state, and coyotes have been known to adapt to suburban, even urban settings.

They have been spotted in Central Park in New York City. One was found recently in a Wal-Mart parking lot near Jackson, Miss.

Long relegated to the American West, coyotes - which weigh 25 to 40 pounds and resemble a German shepherd but for their pointier noses and ears - have over the past 10 years migrated to the Eastern Seaboard.

Experts say they have drifted south from Canada into New England and Pennsylvania, and have moved from the Southwest through Arkansas and Mississippi, up to Virginia.

The convergence of these two migrations, say experts, is about to happen in Maryland and Delaware, making those states the last to see major population jumps.

Maryland need only look to its neighbors to know what to expect. Last year, coyotes killed 400 sheep and 1,500 lambs in Virginia, costing farmers $111,500.

In Pennsylvania, they killed 100 sheep and 400 lambs, costing farmers $31,100.

Nationwide, farmers lost $10 million last year because of sheep and lambs killed by coyotes. Federal statistics show farmers also lose millions of dollars annually because of killed cattle.

State DNR officials say they received only a handful of reports last year from Maryland farmers claiming livestock was killed by coyotes, whose eating habits are highly adaptable; they consume everything from adult cattle, to small rodents, to fruit.

Colona says chicken houses on the Eastern Shore might be particularly susceptible in coming years, especially if coyotes scare the birds, causing them to pile up on and smother each other.

According to the DNR, the highest concentrations of coyotes so far are in Garrett and Allegany counties, rural areas between Hagerstown and Boonsboro in Washington County, and northern Baltimore County.

Bender, who farms 500 acres in Keysers Ridge, 20 miles north of Oakland in Garrett County, says he found his stillborn calf one morning last fall.

When he returned to pick it up in the afternoon, the carcass had teeth marks and had been moved.

In his 40 years living on a farm, Bender says, he's never seen a turkey buzzard, the typical scavenger of dead animals in these parts, move a dead calf before eating it.

"Vultures don't move it," Bender says. "They leave it right there." He suspects a coyote. After all, he shot one this year while hunting deer in the woods that abut his farm. His neighbors have shot four others.

Bender also caught a coyote wandering in his dairy barn, but the animal scurried away before he could do anything.

"They say sly like a fox, but [coyotes] are a lot sneakier," Bender says. He adds that farmers here have read horrific stories in outdoor magazines about coyotes taking dozens of heads of livestock from individual farmers out West.

When farmers here kill a coyote in the woods, he adds, they celebrate more than when they kill a deer - after all, a dead coyote could mean the life of a sheep spared.

"Everybody's concerned about shooting them," Bender says.

In Maryland, licensed hunters can kill coyotes year-round, but the animals are smart and elusive. Some say they can catch coyotes only if they happen to be fleeing, perhaps with a pack of deer, from another hunter.

The federal government has spent millions of dollars trying to reduce the coyote population in the West, and now in some eastern states, with little success.

Bruce Leopold, a professor of wildlife ecology at Mississippi State University who just completed a 10-year study of coyotes' eating patterns, says they mostly prefer rabbits, rats and mice.

Trouble is, their bodies can adjust easily to other foods when the preferred staples are unavailable. Often, he says, coyotes that stumble upon human habitats are young or have been beaten to their common food sources by more dominant coyotes.

"They can live in the woods, in grass, or in a suburban landscape," says Leopold. "They're gonna survive. They'll just adapt to all sorts of habitats."

A study completed at Mississippi State in 1987 showed that, in addition to natural migration patterns, humans contributed to the coyotes' eastbound roam.

Particularly in the Carolinas, the study shows, operators of hunting tournaments imported coyotes from the West to let dogs chase them. Many coyotes escaped from the pens in which the tourneys were held, then reproduced and migrated across the Southeast.

Leopold says trapping records rarely showed coyotes caught in eastern states prior to the 1970s. Now, some states show thousands trapped per year.

Wildlife officials are urging farmers in areas where there are coyotes to keep smaller livestock indoors or in secured pastures. They say large dogs can help scare away coyotes, if owners leave them outdoors.

But coyotes have been known to prey on smaller dogs, such as poodles, and on cats. Humans are considered safe from the animals, though one shocked a community on Cape Cod last summer when it attacked a child.

Colona says pet owners, even in suburban settings, would be wise to begin stopping pets from roaming freely outdoors.

He also says that if residents leave food for cats and dogs outside, coyotes will sometimes come eat it, and that could help adapt the animals to the suburban habitat.

Bernadine Friend, the 72-year-old director of the Garrett County Animal Shelter, keeps 67 cats on her 5 acres in Friendsville, near the West Virginia border. Like her rural neighbors, she lets animals run freely and says her cats have always returned home safely.

Three cats disappeared last fall, the first ever to vanish from her property. Two more disappeared several weeks ago, each after she heard them shriek.

Evidence is circumstantial - she has seen coyotes on the road and neighbors have heard them howling at night - but Friend is convinced they're responsible.

"I never heard cats scream before," she says.

Taking the DNR's advice, Friend built two large caged pens, now the only areas in which her cats are allowed outdoors.

"They're not happy in there, but they're safe. They can't roam. They can't run and climb trees, the things they did before," says Friend, who adds that her love for animals makes it hard to hate coyotes.

"They're a beautiful animal, but right at this time I have no sympathy for them. There is probably a place for them. It's not in my back yard."

Sun staff researcher Sarah Gehring contributed to this article.

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