By Jason Abraham
Sun lit the St. Paul skyline as I jogged toward the city's center on the Smith Avenue bridge. With cars and trucks whizzing by on my left, I glanced to the west bank of the Mississippi River, where a dog slunk at the edge of a rocky embankment. It cautiously worked its way toward a bridge abutment, wasting no effort to sniff trees.
In the gathering light, I saw its drooping bushy tail, erect pointed ears, and pale reddish-gray coat; and I realized that this was no ordinary dog. Here, near a bustling urban bridge, blocks from towering office buildings, a coyote (Canis latrans), one of Minnesota's most cunning and persistent predators, was hunting. This was one of many coyotes that inhabit the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs. Like their rural counterparts, urban coyotes thrive because they are masters of survival.
Despite more than 200 years of shooting, trapping, and poisoning by farmers, ranchers, and government trappers, coyotes have expanded their range to include most of North America. Biologists estimate that there are more coyotes in the United States today than ever before. In southern and central Minnesota, coyote populations appear to be increasing or steady. Coyote numbers remain low in much of northern Minnesota, where much larger gray wolves are the dominant species.
As coyotes become a more common sight in the state, people and wildlife alike are adjusting to life with this omnivorous canine.
Coyotes were once known as ghosts of the plains for their mournful nighttime howl and stealthy ability to remain unseen in daylight. Now that their range includes cities and suburbs, coyotes have become more conspicuous among city lights and ever-watchful residents. In St. Paul, reports of urban coyotes have been increasing in the past five years, says Bill Stephenson, St. Paul animal control supervisor.
"We used to get one or two calls about coyotes per year," Stephenson says. "Now it's up to one or two per week."
Similar increases have been noted in Minneapolis and its surrounding suburbs, as well as in other cities across the Midwest. In downtown Chicago, a coyote wandered into a sandwich shop in broad daylight and got national media attention. A coyote nicknamed "Hal" also made national news when he led New York Police on a long chase through Central Park before being tranquilized in 2006.
John Erb, Department of Natural Resources furbearer biologist, says the increase in coyote sightings in the Twin Cities area is probably due in part to animals dispersing from growing coyote populations in nearby rural areas. It's a testament to the coyote's ability to adapt to living in close quarters with humans.
"Once a few individuals take up residence and become familiar with the urban landscape, they become very proficient at finding food and raising pups," Erb says. "They establish persistent, although sometimes small, populations. As research in the Chicago suburbs has found, some animals also become quite skilled at navigating the myriad roads and automobiles in urban settings."
The majority of calls to animal control in St. Paul come from residents who see coyotes near their homes and become concerned for their pets or children. While coyotes have been known to attack pets and have bitten people in other states, Stephenson says such incidents are still rare and there is little danger to city residents.
"Coyotes are naturally afraid of humans, so anything people can do to harass them will help keep them away from houses and people," Stephenson says. "But we do have to learn to live with coyotes, because we can't get rid of them. The key is educating residents."
Stephenson recommends keeping pets close to the house to avoid coyote interactions. Motion detecting lights also help keep coyotes away from houses at night. And keeping edible items, such as pet food or refuse, securely contained reduces the chance of a coyote visit.
Controlling urban coyote populations is nearly impossible, Stephenson says. Snares or foothold traps -- standard tools for capturing coyotes in rural areas -- can't be used because they are often prohibited by city ordinances. Coyotes quickly sense danger and are notoriously difficult to catch in cage traps.
Stephenson says animal control officers do attempt to capture coyotes slowed by sickness or injury or those that are behaving aggressively.
Although coyotes scavenge around homes, their diet consists primarily of natural foods in urban areas. An Ohio State University study, which monitored radio-collared coyotes in the Chicago metro area, found they eat mostly small rodents, fruits, deer (primarily fawns or roadkill), and rabbits. Domestic cats and garbage made up less than 1 percent of the urban coyote's diet. Pets and trash were a larger part of coyote diets in studies of coyotes in the southwestern United States.
The Ohio State study also found that urban coyotes tend to live in large wooded parks or golf courses -- landscape features that are abundant in the Twin Cities.
"Having been built on the Mississippi River, there really isn't a spot in the city of St. Paul that's not near some wooded ravine or riverbank," Stephenson says. "Those are usually the places where coyotes live. People see them wandering through back yards or alleys at night looking for a meal."
Biologists point out that coyotes and other predators in the city provide benefits. Rodents make up the bulk of a coyote's diet. Although they rarely take adult deer, coyotes are primary predators of fawns, which may help slow deer population growth in areas with high deer density. Coyotes may also slow Canada goose population growth through egg predation, though they typically do not prey on adult Canada geese.
Before Europeans arrived in Minnesota, wolves dominated the landscape, and coyote populations were likely small and scattered, says Bill Berg, a retired DNR furbearer biologist who studied coyotes in the 1970s and 1980s.
When settlement moved north and west in Minnesota, wolves were eliminated in part by trapping, shooting, and poisons, activities that were legal at the time. The disappearance of elk and buffalo -- once important prey species for wolves -- also contributed to the decline in wolf populations statewide.
Coyotes began to fill in the gaps in the north-central forests and on the plains, Berg says. Seen mostly as marauders of lambs, calves, and chickens, coyotes were also targeted by farmers. Until 1965 coyotes had a price on their heads. The state paid about 1,400 coyote bounties each year.
But bounties on coyotes, and all other predator species in Minnesota, were eliminated when Gov. Karl Rolvaag vetoed a bounty bill passed by the 1965 Minnesota legislature. Numerous studies proved them ineffective and prone to abuse. Before 1965 only certain counties paid a bounty on coyotes and carcasses were often remitted to counties that paid, rather than in the jurisdictions where the coyotes were killed. In 1972 the federal Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of poisons in most circumstances, because eagles and other wildlife also died if they fed on the carcasses of poisoned animals.
By the mid-1970s, coyotes were plentiful in Minnesota's north-central forests while wolves occupied a small part of the extreme northeast. Foxes were more abundant on the southern prairies, Berg says. Today, the wolf range has expanded to include more of northeastern and north-central Minnesota, and coyotes are more abundant on the prairies.
Because coyotes compete with wolves for food and habitat, the two animals generally don't occupy the same territories. Wolves, which weigh about twice as much as the average coyote, are the dominant species.
"Wolves and coyotes recognize each other as competitors," says Dan Stark, DNR wolf specialist. "If a wolf catches a coyote, he will typically try to kill the coyote."
While monitoring radio-collared coyotes in the 1970s around Hill City in northern Aitkin County, Berg says he and his colleagues watched as the wolf population expanded and forced many of the coyotes out of the area during four or five years. This scenario was playing out across all of northern Minnesota as the wolf population continued to expand, according to Berg.
In one instance, Berg saw the competition firsthand. "We were flying over a radio-collared wolf south of Remer that had just pulled down a deer," Berg says. "We looked over, and here's the coyote walking right up to the kill, and it starts eating right next to this big wolf. The wolf took one look, chased the coyote off, and went right back to eating."
Foxes also compete with coyotes for food and habitat and typically do not occupy the same territory. In this case coyotes, which are typically three times larger than foxes, are the dominant species. This could be one explanation for an apparent decline in the number of foxes in southern and western counties, Stark says.
Although the DNR does not formally survey fox and coyote populations, the DNR has estimated population trends since 1975 by using an annual scent-post survey. The researchers place a scent disk in the center of a sand circle, then return to identify and log any tracks near the post.
Since the early 1990s, the scent station visitation rate for fox in the farmland zone has declined by 88 percent, while the scent station visitation rate for coyotes in the same area has increased by nearly 500 percent.
"The introduction of grasslands through the Conservation Reserve Program probably contributed to the increase in coyote populations," Stark says. "Because they have larger territories (10 to 15 square miles), coyote do pretty well in CRP fields. Whereas fox, at least in the absence of coyotes, can do fine in landscapes with small scattered patches of cover like fencerows and farm lots."
While fox, coyotes, and wolves influence each other and alter competitor behavior, Erb says these species coexist at varying levels. "We have coyotes throughout the wolf range, and fox throughout the coyote range," he says. "I've talked to trappers who have caught coyote, red fox, and gray fox at the same exact trap set within a week or two, and we certainly find coyote sign in the wolf range."
Despite their reputation as cunning survivalists, coyotes can be beneficial to certain species, particularly waterfowl, says Marsha Sovada, wildlife researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in North Dakota. Studies in North Dakota, Minnesota, and elsewhere have shown that ground-nesting birds have higher nesting success in areas where coyotes are the dominant predator compared with foxes.
"Coyotes do prefer mammals over birds," Sovada says.
Moreover, red foxes tend to cache any eggs they don't eat immediately -- something coyotes don't do. "A coyote will mess around with a nest and maybe eat one or two of the eggs, but a red fox will take every egg in the nest," Sovada says.
Foxes also occur in higher densities on smaller territories and hunt those territories for birds and nests much more intensively than coyotes do, according to Sovada.
While ground-nesting birds are likely to have better nesting success in an area dominated by coyotes, Erb points out that the loss and fragmentation of grassland habitat makes ground nests more vulnerable to myriad predators, including fox, raccoon, skunk, rodents, and others.
Although I frequently run on the Smith Avenue bridge, I never again saw that coyote. Perhaps it moved on to more secluded surroundings or fell victim to a vehicle, one of the most common demises for urban coyotes.
I mentioned the sighting to a few friends in the months after, and nearly everyone related a similar experience. Some also wondered why the authorities weren't doing something about these wild animals.
Personally, I think it's hard not to appreciate a wild creature so tenacious and sly that it can survive in the seams of an urban landscape.
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