Photo by Jack Kelly
By Jack Kelly
Of all of Aquidneck Island’s wildlife species, the most misunderstood is the coyote. These intelligent creatures can adapt to any urban, rural, or suburban environment, presenting a complex problem for local residents, county law enforcement departments, state wildlife managers, and government officials.
In 2005, the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study was initiated to address the rising number of coyotes in the county and an increase in their displays of bold behavior. Under the direction of lead scientist Numi Mitchell, a team of biologists, volunteers, educators, students, and scientists gathered biological and behavioral information on coyotes.
Through the use of Global Positioning System tracking collars, researchers obtained data on pack territories, pack sizes, and how humans were directly or indirectly providing food to coyotes. By feeding coyotes, humans contribute to the increase in their numbers. Simply put, the more food the female coyotes eat, the more fertile they become, leading to larger pup litters and, in turn, more coyotes.
The availability of more food also leads to smaller pack territories, which allows for more packs to inhabit the region.
But the tracking collars only had a short reception range. If the collared coyote went out of range, the researchers would have to wait for the collar to drop off to retrieve its data.
In January 2010, the researchers proposed a plan for dealing with the coyote population titled, “Coyote Best Management Practices.” This plan addressed the fact that humans continuing to feed the coyote population would lead to multiple problems.
According to Mitchell, “Humans who leave food, food waste, and other edible substances out for the coyotes, either purposely or inadvertently, create dangerous public safety issues for themselves, their children, their pets, their neighbors, and the coyotes. Coyotes are born with an innate, genetic fear of humans. This is known as the ‘fear barrier.’ Normal coyotes will run away from humans and never initiate contact. However, coyotes that receive food from humans lose this natural instinct as they begin to associate humans with food.
Coyotes who cross the fear barrier are known as habituated coyotes, and they can become problem coyotes, leading to problems with the human population.”
Another issue that became apparent was the number of transient coyotes that existed on the island. Transients are coyotes without a designated pack territory. They are usually young coyotes rejected by packs due to natural selection, and they survive on land areas not claimed by other packs. (This is one of the consequences of larger litter sizes of human-fed females.)
In the fall of 2010, the number of coyote nuisance complaints escalated across the county but especially in Middletown. Coyotes that had been fed by humans killed a number of family pets and showed aggressive behavior towards humans. By March of 2011, the town of Middletown allowed a hunter to begin culling the area packs to alleviate the situation. Forty coyotes were killed during this time.
The town also began fining people who intentionally fed coyotes. Researchers continued to monitor the coyote population and discovered that, even though packs were being culled, transients were moving into vacated territories and establishing new packs.
State Sen. Louis DiPalma and Rep. Deborah Ruggiero assisted Middletown officials in establishing a long-term program to address the coyote situation. “We worked with Chief Pesare of the Middletown Police Department and formed the Aquidneck Island Coyote Work Group,” says DePalma. “Representatives of the Potter League, Middletown Town Council, Newport Police Department, Portsmouth Police Department and RI Department of Environmental Management met to establish both short term and long term programs in dealing with the coyote population. This is a complicated situation that will require the cooperation of many agencies. Decisions need to be based on facts and data, not conjecture and emotion, because the coyotes are not going away.”
Science and history bear out DiPalma’s statement. In 150 years of attempted coyote eradication programs across North America, none has been successful, and coyote populations are still prevalent.
DiPalma helped to secure a grant and technical support from the AT&T company for a new tracking collar design utilizing wireless mobile technology. Will Kaiser, spokesman for AT&T New England, said, “We are very pleased to provide this initial grant for this interesting application of technology. We are seeing creative people trying to solve complex problems through the use of the wireless network. It’s exciting to see innovative use of mobile technology to solve issues not only between humans, but between animals and humans.”
Recently, Mitchell, along with a team of volunteers, trapped, sedated, collared, and released a male coyote in the Middletown area, using the first of the new wireless collars to be deployed in the wild. Mitchell was elated by the data that began to come in, “This will allow us to get live-time data on the location of the animal,” she said. “As the program progresses, we will be able to identify problems in a short amount of time. We will also be able to identify those packs which are natural and beneficial to the overall health of the local environment. This will benefit enforcement agencies in the identification of food sources, both intentional and unintentional.”
Ruggiero praised the pilot program: “I commend the work that Numi Mitchell has done, specifically in Middletown, but for all of Aquidneck Island and Jamestown. We greatly appreciate the funding from AT&T for the collars. It has the potential of being a template for the rest of the state and possibly the nation.”
DiPalma added, “This collar technology is the first of its kind in the nation. The end result is that people and coyotes can safely and peacefully co-exist. Science can generate facts and data which will be used to make objective decisions towards long-term solutions which will benefit all concerned.”