Coyotes everywhere: Vashon Island's experience

By Daniel Jack Chasan
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A coyote pounces on small prey in Yellowstone National Park.

By Daniel Jack Chasan

A coyote slipped into the darkened field, just as everyone had expected. People at last summer's three-day Vashon Island sheepdog trials had found two sheep dead in the grass that morning.  Several hundred Oregon sheep had been trucked to Vashon for the annual event held in a big rolling field that once belonged to the late Food Services of America billionaire Tom Stewart. No sheep had ever been killed before at the trials.

The people assumed the killer was a coyote, and the event's organizer, Maggi McClure, called in Andy Cleland, a predator specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cleland concluded that the predator had, indeed, been a coyote — and it had been good at its work. In fact, Cleland says, "this was one of the cleanest and most efficient kills by a coyote that I had ever seen." The fewer the bites, the more efficient the biter. A coyote kills a sheep by clamping its trachea and suffocating it. "An experienced coyote will make a good capture and hang on," he explains. Less skilled coyotes will have to keep biting at the prey. At the sheepdog trials, the puncture marks indicated only one or two grabs.

How to prevent more kills? The surviving sheep weren't going anywhere; the trucks that had carried them to the island had already left. Usually, Cleland says, one would securely pen the sheep or bring in guard dogs to protect them. But no one was going to pen several hundred sheep in a hurry, and on such short notice, "you can't exactly pick up a guard dog on Craig's List."

Cleland had the carcasses moved to a spot away from the rest of the sheep, assuming that the predator would return, alone or possibly with an accomplice, to dine on them. Instead, six coyotes appeared in the field.

They went boldly past the campgrounds where dog handlers and volunteers would sleep, Cleland recalls, and started to feed on the carcasses. Despite the presence of people and many dogs, "one coyote made a beeline for the remaining flock of sheep." The coyote ran toward the flock, not bothering to creep. Cleland shot it. The rest of the coyotes scatted. "I didn't expect to see any more coyotes that night," Cleland says. Yet, he says, "About three hours later, the coyotes returned. One of them did the same thing." He shot the second animal, too. This time, the remaining coyotes stayed away.

The weekly Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber subsequently ran a front-page story about the deaths of the sheep and the coyotes.

McClure told the paper, “We were shocked and saddened by the attacks.” Michael Tracy, who lived near the site, said he was "shocked and upset that this action was taken against coyotes in our area.”

Wherever one's sympathies lay, the Beachcomber story made it clear that Vashon did, indeed, harbor coyotes, a fact of which some people had been completely unaware and others had viewed with some skepticism. "I think that was just a perfect storm kind of event," says Bianca Perla, director of the Vashon Nature Center. "It kind of took everybody by surprise. In a lot of ways it crystallized a lot of people's thinking." It convinced them, she says, that "'we oughta pay attention to these guys and [start] acting like they're really here.'"

Actually, Perla says, coyotes had lived on the island for years. She and her colleagues had been following the reports since 2011, when they received a picture of a coyote in somebody's yard, and the animals' presence had been detected long before that. She says there were "some anecdotal accounts of people who thought they saw coyotes scattered through the 1970s." There has been no doubt since 2005, when a coyote was run over on an island road.

Coyotes aren't native to Vashon. In fact, they're not native to the Northwest. They started out in the Southwest and the edge of the Great Plains, but by now, they live virtually everywhere.

The nation's relentless and largely effective effort to stamp out wolves left a clear field for coyotes, which quickly took advantage of it. Perla says they probably reached King County in the 1930s. They made it to Whidbey Island by the 1970s, and their attacks on Whidbey livestock made local headlines a dozen years ago. And they do just fine in the urban jungle. (A coyote once walked into a fast-food sandwich shop in Chicago. There's no record of what it ordered.)

The tricksters of Southwestern native myth have spread all the way from Alaska to Panama, Cleland says. He sees it for what it is: "kind of an amazing story of adaptation."

Washington's own coyote population has exploded. Cleland has seen "a huge upswing in conflicts just over the past few years." He speculates that the increase in complaints has followed the 2000 passage of Initiative 713, which banned leghold traps. "I feel that we've pretty much reached saturation," he says. "Everywhere that can support a coyote population is supporting one." And people have adapted, too, leading to some relaxation in the conflicts recently.

Nevertheless, Cleland says he gets a couple of hundred calls each year. Of those, in only "around 5 percent we recommend that coyotes be removed." Virtually all of those cases involve animals that have attacked people's pets. He notes, though, that "coyotes around schools are obviously a very sensitive issue." In a Colorado Springs park a couple of years ago, a coyote bit a toddler in the head as she came off a playground slide.

When there are complaints, the coyote's behavior is graded on a scale, based on a series of warning signs that have been shown to reflect a tendency to bite people. The first level is an increase in daylight sightings, which means an animal is losing its fear of people. The second involves predation on pets. The third involves "coyotes that are willing to go after pets that are attended" — e.g., a dog that its owner is walking on a leash. "That, for us, is kind of a tipping point," Cleland says. "The research has shown that coyotes that have progressed to that stage are not typically going to be deterred by a hazing campaign."

Hence the decision to shoot the coyotes that ignored people and ran at sheep on Vashon. He does not infer from that incident that there would be any point in trying to kill the surviving island coyotes, even if anyone wanted to. "The goal is never eradication," Cleland says, although he acknowledges that plenty of people who raise livestock would like to see coyotes rubbed out. It won't happen, though. And eradicating them even temporarily in a place as small and defined as Vashon Island would be "an enormous undertaking" for something that's unnecessary. "It's a battle that we don't think needs to be fought."

You can kill off gray wolves or grizzly bears — which is why both species wound up on the endangered species list, and why "de-listing" them has been so controversial. But coyotes are different. People have tried to kill them off, too. It hasn't worked.

Therefore, people on Vashon, as virtually everywhere else, must learn to live with coyotes — and with the consequences of having them around.

It's one thing to say we should learn to live with wolves or grizzly bears, most of which are far removed from city-dwellers lives or economic interests; what that really means in many cases is that other people should learn to live with them. It's quite another to say we should learn to live with coyotes, which may be lurking in the bushes right up the block.

On Vashon, "they are a whole different ballgame," Perla says. "You don't have to worry about your sheep when you just have raccoons on the island." For many people, she suggests, "the concept of having predators around is a lot easier than dealing with the reality." There's an element of fear and not knowing if we can control the relationship. And it's "hard for communities to deal with that uncertainty."

So how does one live with predators? You can start by not feeding them. Yes, that really does need to be said. Cleland says that the least helpful reaction to coyotes is "the hot dog response": You see a coyote at some distance, want a closer look, and throw food in the animal's direction. That, he says, is hands-down "the worst thing that you can do."

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says that there were no documented coyote attacks on humans in Washington until 2006: "In April 2006, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers euthanized two coyotes in Bellevue . . . after two young children were bitten while their parents were nearby. Coyotes had also scratched and snapped at two women and charged a man in the same area. These coyotes’ unusually aggressive behavior likely resulted from being fed by people."

You can also avoid unintentional feeding: Don't put pet food or compost piles where coyotes can get it, especially after dark. Don't put your pets out after dark, either. Don't feed feral cats (on which coyotes prey). In order to limit the local concentration of rodents (on which coyotes also prey), don't feed — or at least don't over-feed — the birds. Basically, Cleland explains, you want coyotes to maintain their fear of human beings — which is an uphill battle.

In trying to instill fear into coyotes, he says, people are at a disadvantage. "In the city, especially, they see us more times than we see them." Therefore, they get used to our presence, and we have relatively few chances to scare them off. "Every time you see a coyote you have to take advantage of that opportunity by scaring that coyote as much as you possibly can," he says. Shout, honk your horn, blow a whistle, whatever.

(You can shoot them, too -- if it's legal where you are -- but as Perla points out, killing predators can have unintended consequences. In one recent study, when wolves were killed to protect livestock, livestock losses actually increased the following year.)

"The tricky thing about living with wildlife," explains the Vashon Nature Center website, "is that it takes consistency on the part of the whole community. If you scare coyotes and your neighbor feeds them then all your hard work will be for naught."

People have speculated about how the coyotes reached Vashon. Did someone deliberately take them to the island? Did they swim? Perla assumes they swam from the Kitsap Peninsula — as have deer and occasional bears. (In 2007, a black bear showed up on Vashon, was sighted several times making its way from the western shore to the eastern, then swam across the shipping channel to Des Moines.)

Assuming people really saw coyotes in the '70s, Perla says, that "points to the fact that they continue to keep swimming over." Therefore, even if one could eradicate them all right now, a new batch would probably turn up later.

But they won't overrun the island. "The question comes up: what's going to happen when they continue to breed?" Cleland says. But people don't have to worry about them breeding like rabbits. "With coyotes being territorial, the island is only going to support so many." There would only be "one family group for every three or four square miles."

Having a family of Canis latrans every few miles can be good or bad. It all depends on whom you're rooting for. If you're rooting for songbirds, it's good. If you're rooting for cats or raccoons, it's bad. Researchers in southern California found that "coyote presence or absence was an important predictor of ... domestic cat, opossum and raccoon abundance." The more abundant were cats, raccons, opossums and grey foxes, the less abundant were species of scrub-dwelling birds. Having a real top predator in town had effects all down the food chain.

"Right now," Perla says, "we're just trying to answer some pretty basic questions: How many do we have? Where are they? What are their behavior patterns? Are they acting wild or are they getting used to humans? What are they eating? Islands are special cases, so we really don't know how it's all going to play out here."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.