Our Sunday outdoors column that mentioned Georgia's new study of coyotes helped underscore an important point. Some people love them and some people hate them. There is no middle ground.
Georgia's Wildlife Resources Department gets plenty of complaints from farmers and hunters alike that the predatory canines are killing livestock and deer. Coyotes also feed heavily on newborn fawns during the spring, but their effect on deer populations is largely unknown.
That's why the state is launching a four-year inquiry designed to get a handle on how many coyotes we have and also gauge whether their numbers are still expanding. They also need to determine the impact of coyotes on our deer herd.
Part of the plan, of course, will involve trapping and killing lots of coyotes in selected areas. The deer herd will then be studied in areas with lots of coyotes, and compared with deer in areas where most coyotes have been removed. That didn't set well with some readers, such as Becky Pomponio, who emailed me from Sarasota, Fla., after reading our story online.
"My concern is that state wildlife agencies too often feel beholden to the desires of those hunters who DO kill coyotes and to livestock producers, instead of to the majority of us who respect wildlife and want to enjoy it for years to come," she wrote. "Most of us don't oppose hunting for meat, but killing coyotes just for the hell of it is unethical and counterproductive. You will see growing concern about it, I predict."
She also pointed out that coyotes and many species of deer have co-existed in Western states for centuries without any real problems. In short, she maintains, coyotes are part of our environment and should not be eradicated.
"Did you know that the howls of coyotes are often the parents calling their young a year or two after their birth, apparently just to see how they're doing? When a coyote is killed, its mate has been observed in mourning with depressed behavior...its howl silenced for weeks. These are highly intelligent, beautiful animals that we should NOT treat as vermin."
On the other end of the spectrum are folks like Clyde Gurosik, a South Carolina farmer who has had plenty of interaction with the wily predators.
"I applaud your article in today's chronicle, calling attention to the "Coyote Study," he wrote. "I truly enjoy observing every animal, bird, fish and even reptile and insect that God put on this earth, except the "coyote". There is no other that I despise and equate more with "The Prince of Darkness". I sincerely hope that other true sportsmen, sportswomen and natural wildlife observers can recognize them for the "SATANS" that they are. I sincerely hope that other sportsmen quickly recognize the need for "INTENSIVE COYOTE REMOVAL", and don't condone long-term costly studies, as coyotes decimate study resources. You can study something to death!!"
As for me, I'm not so sure how damaging coyotes are to our environment. One thing people often overlook is the fact that these creatures are native species in Western states, but only appeared in our region in the past few decades. Thus, their impact is still being ironed out in the complex and ever-changing ecosystem we live in.
It might even turn out that coyotes are helping to control whitetail populations, rather than decimating them, as some hunting groups insist. But the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Although Georgia's coyote study is just beginning, other studies-including one at Savannah River Site-have been under way quite some time. The SRS study we reported on last year http://chronicle.augusta.com/stories/2009/08/02/pav_542875.shtml suggests their numbers are growing, even in suburban areas. It also concluded, at least from the data gathered so far, that coyotes account for a huge percentage of fawn deaths.
Just for some background on when (and how) we ended up with coyotes here in the first place, I dug out the first story I wrote about them - way back in December 1992:
By Rob Pavey
Four years ago, a motorist on a rural highway in Aiken County struck and killed what first appeared to be a dog. It wasn't.
The wolflike carcass - too large for a fox - was taken to wildlife experts, who weren't the least bit surprised. ''It was only a matter of time,'' said Jeff Priest of the Ruth Patrick Science Center in Aiken, whose doctoral research focused on the secretive, nocturnal coyotes that are spreading across the South.
Like the European boar, fire ants, starlings and other creatures introduced from afar, the coyote is carving an ever-expanding niche among more traditional species - but not without an impact of its own.
''They've been moving in this direction since the turn of the century,'' said Dr. Priest, adding that the coyote's newfound range in areas like suburban Columbia County has drawn new attention to the species. '
'There's a certain amount of fear that they'll damage populations of rabbit, turkey, even quail,'' he said. ''But I don't find that to be the case. They're pretty much loners, and they don't hunt in packs.''
The cunning, adaptable coyote, native to the West, survived well-organized eradication efforts for centuries, Dr. Priest said. ''So they're here to stay, no matter what we may do.''
Although theories indicate captive coyotes were released in certain areas, scientists generally believe they are the result of an eastward migration from the Mississippi River Basin that began before the 1960s.
Dan Marshall, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist working in Thomson, said local sightings have grown more frequent this year, especially in Columbia County.
''It's just in the last couple of years they entered the Augusta area,'' he said. ''They started in isolated areas around Macon, south Georgia and one site up in north Georgia. It's thought they were released there, but nobody takes credit for it. I can tell you the state of Georgia didn't do it.''
They are neither regulated nor protected, Mr. Marshall said, and can be killed as pests any time of the year.
Although there are numerous myths about the impact of coyotes on other species, many are untrue, he said. '
'All animals have a niche, and when a new one comes in, it interferes,'' he said. ''In the case of coyotes, the one most affected is the red fox. They have similar range and food habits and the foxes usually get forced out.''
Sporadic reports filter in about coyotes attacking livestock or deer, he said, but such attacks sometimes are from dogs. ''We did get one report from a farmer who killed a coyote he claimed killed his calf,'' he said.
Eastern coyotes are larger and more powerful than their western counterparts, due mainly to milder winters and more abundant vegetation and food. Adults, especially males, can exceed 40 pounds. But experts like Dr. Priest and Chuck Lydeard of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory - whose graduate studies included a thesis on coyotes - don't foresee an increase in livestock attacks or a depletion of deer.
''Most of the fears are usually exaggerated,'' Dr. Lydeard said. ''They'll eat livestock if they can, but those problems can be resolved by farmers protecting their animals.''
A more-common problem with eastern coyotes is their affinity for vegetables, especially watermelons and cantaloupes.
''We don't get many complaints about foxes, but coyotes sure do like those watermelons,'' said Jim Ozier of Georgia's Non-game Endangered Wildlife Program, who added that coyotes also ravage cucumber patches, too.
Wes Harris of the Burke County, Ga., Extension Service office, agreed. ''I don't know if it's the flavor or what,'' he said. ''But coyotes love watermelons, I can promise you that.''