Coyotes: Their Eco-Impact and Spread

As coyotes increase their range in the South and East, they create growing deer-management concerns.

Coyotes: Their Eco-Impact and Spread

If you think you hear howling in the night, it may not be your imagination. You’re probably hearing a coyote. (Shutterstock image)

Game & Fish contributor Carolee Anita Boyles takes a look at how states in the South and East are dealing with the expanding coyote population and challenges in their regions.

Note: These articles were featured in the South and East editions of November’s Game & Fish Magazine.

Coyotes in the South

If you think you hear howling in the night, it may not be your imagination. You’re probably hearing a coyote. Although coyotes are more associated with western deserts and mountains than they are with piney woods and swamps, the Southeast has, in the last couple of decades, begun to have more than its share of these small predators.

Coyotes first appeared in the Southeast in the 1960s, but their numbers really started to increase in the 1980s. Some of them were brought in by hunters, but most arrived on their own, part of an overall range expansion of the animal into many eastern states. Today, the coyote is widely distributed throughout North America, south through Mexico, and into Central America.

Coyotes are very adaptable and somewhat secretive, and they live in a variety of habitats and ecosystems across the Southeast. They look much like small German shepherds, although their coat color varies somewhat from location to location. They’re usually 11 to 16 inches tall, and weigh between 18 and 30 pounds, though some eastern coyotes are larger.

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They’ve expanded their range in part because they eat a wide variety of food. Researchers at the Memphis State University in Tennessee have studied coyote food habits for several years. In that study, they found that 42.2 percent of the animals sampled ate rodents; 27.9 percent ate rabbit; 24.3 percent ate deer; 20.2 percent ate livestock; 13 percent ate insects; and 11.9 percent ate non-game birds.

Researchers also looked at the fruits and vegetables that coyotes consumed. They found that 31.5 percent of animals ate persimmon; 16.7 percent ate grass; and 21 percent ate other vegetation.

In Florida, one of the greatest conflicts with coyotes concerns livestock. Coyotes have been documented attacking sheep, goats, calves, poultry and hogs, and they also eat agricultural crops. They also attack small pets, sometimes in urban areas. Homeowners in Loxahatchee, Florida, an unincorporated town that is a bedroom community of West Palm Beach, regularly report seeing coyotes during the day. In early June of this year, coyotes were stealing chickens out of Loxahatchee yards in mid-afternoon. Reports such as these are frequent throughout the coyote’s range.

Furthermore, as hunters know, coyotes also have an impact on the deer herd.

Predators in East, South
Coyotes are extremely flexible predators in regard to the kinds of environments in which they can hunt and thrive as they expand their range across the South. (Photo by Carolee Anita Boyles)

“They do take a few deer, but they’re mostly fawns during the fawning period,” said Cory Morea, Statewide Deer Coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Studies have shown that they’re having an impact on deer populations throughout the Southeast. That’s something we have to be mindful of and consider when we’re developing harvest strategies for deer.”

Back in the 1980s, Morea said, coyotes were expanding into Florida, but they weren’t prevalent throughout the entire state.

“Since then, they’ve gotten prevalent throughout Florida,” he said. “In the past decade or so, they’ve become more of an urban and suburban issue than they were before. The overall numbers have increased, and their geographic coverage has increased.” They’ve now been documented in all 67 counties in the state.

In the 1980s, biologists were concerned that coyotes would mate with domestic dogs and produce wild “coy dogs” that wouldn’t fear humans and would occupy a top predator niche in the environment. Morea said this has not materialized.

“Some of our greater concerns are hybridization with red wolves where the two species intermix, but there isn’t anywhere in Florida that that’s happening,” he said.

Biologists in Alabama also are watching what happens with coyote populations. Chris Cook, Deer Studies Project Leader for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, notes that a primary concern is coyotes’ influence on deer herds.

“That’s something we have questions about, but you’re not going to get rid of coyotes; they’re here,” he said. “As more research comes out, it’s clear that we can’t make them a non-factor in deer management decisions, so we have to learn to adjust our management strategies through bag limits and season lengths to compensate for them.”

The information that research reveals about coyotes varies with the project. “Some projects show coyotes having a pretty significant impact on fawn recruitment numbers on certain properties,” he said. “Other studies show a whole lot less impact. There are a lot of factors that figure into whether coyotes are going to have an impact on the deer population.”

If the deer herd is managed well and the habitat is managed well, Cook said, you can have a healthy deer population that can withstand any negative effects of predation from coyotes or bobcats or other predators.

“But many times, the habitat is not that good, and those are situations where coyotes may have a lot more of an effect on deer populations,” he said. “I guess you can say they have an easier time of finding fawns if good quality fawn-rearing habitat is kind of sparse or in isolated pockets. In that case, an effective predator like a coyote or a bobcat will be pretty good at keying in on fawns when they hit the ground.”

Researchers at Oklahoma State University have done several research projects looking at the effects of coyote predation on white-tailed deer. Heath Herje, an Extension Specialist at OSU, said that removing predators such as coyotes can improve fawn recruitment in the short term, especially in areas with low deer numbers or poor habitat.

On the other hand, he said, where herd densities are above the carrying capacity of the land, coyotes and other predators may benefit the deer herd by reducing the number of deer in the area.

Wildlife managers in other states also continue to monitor the effect that coyotes have on local deer populations. Biologists in Mississippi have documented a decrease in the size of the deer herd there and instituted a reduction in bag limits for antlerless deer effective for the 2017-2018 hunting season.

Although coyote predation on fawns was not the only reason the bag limit was reduced, that did figure into the decision-making process of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

In this century, whether hunters want them to be here or not, coyotes continue to be part of the deer management equation in the South.

Coyotes in the East

Predators in East, South
How much impact do coyotes really have on deer in the east? The answer may shock you. (Shutterstock image)

No matter where you live in the northeastern United States, sit out on your porch at night and listen. If you think you hear howling, it’s not your imagination. You’re probably hearing coyotes. These ubiquitous little predators—once associated primarily with the Western plains—moved into the Northeast during the latter half of the 20th Century, and now are found from the mountains to the suburbs. They’ve even been reported in Central Park in New York City, with 12 sightings reported in the park between January and June of this year.

The coyote—also called the brush wolf—is not native to the Northeast, and in fact didn’t start showing up in northeastern states until the 1960s.

“Maryland and Delaware were the last two states in the United States to get them,” said Harry Spiker, Game Mammal Section Leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “Here in Maryland, we had our first sighting in 1972. They didn’t occur in any real numbers until the 1980s. Now they are in every county. We have higher densities in the western part of the state with the lowest density on the Eastern shore. They like mountainous areas.”

One unique feature of coyotes in the Northeast is their large size and the wide range of colors they exhibit. “What we call the Eastern coyote comes in seven different colors,” said Tom Decker, a wildlife biologist with the Northeast Region of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “They can be red like a fox, or black like a black Lab. The most common color is a light grey grizzly color with a black sort of saddle over their shoulders. They’re generally a darker color than the average Western coyote. All the color phases can be in the same litter of coyotes.”

Predators in East, South
Coyotes are here to stay in the East. Biologists point out, however, coyotes are just one of many factors that affect deer populations year-round. (Photo by Carolee Anita Boyles)

One possible explanation for this, biologists have suggested, is past interbreeding with other wild canids. “There is information that Eastern coyotes have genetic material from wolves,” Decker said. Despite the fears of many hunters, coyotes have not had much overall effect on the health of ungulate species in the Northeast.

“We haven’t seen any particular wildlife issues,” Spiker said. “Coyotes will take fawns, and we see coyote predation, but not at any level that’s had any impact.” Decker said the amount of coyote predation on the deer herd depends on where you are in the region.

“Coyotes certainly can eat deer year ’round,” he said. “We think of fawns as being very vulnerable during the first six months of their lives. Depending on where you are in the region, black bears may be more of a predator, or coyotes may be more of a predator.”

The big question, however, is not necessarily how much coyotes prey on fawns, but how they fit into the overall picture of predation on the deer herd.

“It’s more about agents of mortality,” Decker said. “The fact of predation doesn’t really demonstrate the effect of predation. The fact that bears or coyotes will eat fawns doesn’t mean they control or even affect the deer herd. There have been studies that have followed fawns through the first six months of their lives that found that about 75 percent of fawns survived and 25 percent of them died.”

Those fawns that died could have been the result of attacks by coyotes, bears, bobcats or domestic dogs, or even caused by poaching. “No one cause was dominant,” Decker said. “You could actually control or eliminate one of those factors, and the other factors would still account for the 25 percent mortality. Those things are variable over time, depending on a variety of factors including the number of fawns, the amount of concealment cover they have, and whether the doe is a first-time mother or an older doe. But in most scenarios, coyotes are not controlling the deer herd.”

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In suburban and urban areas, coyotes do pose a threat to cats and small dogs. There have been many reports across the country of coyotes taking both, especially at night. Biologists advise residents in areas where coyotes are present to keep their pets indoors at night.

With all that said, do you still want to reduce the number of coyotes in your area to minimize predation on the deer herd? If that’s the case, leave them alone. Seriously, don’t trap or shoot any of them. Having a stable coyote population is the best way to keep predation to a minimum.

According to Dr. Carly Summers, an Agricultural Resource Educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service, coyotes live in socially complex packs. When left alone, they settle into a territory and eat primarily rodents. Stable packs also defend the territory in which they live, which means that stray coyotes stay away. These stable packs naturally self-regulate their numbers to maintain a smaller population that the pack can easily feed.

In a report she wrote in the summer of 2018, Summers said that when you shoot a member of the pack, you cause the pack to be destabilized. This has several effects that can create problems. The remaining coyotes disperse across the landscape, so they’re in unfamiliar territory. Instead of knowing where their usual prey is located, they become opportunistic predators, which means they’ll kill whatever they come across, including livestock. The pack also responds to the loss of a pack member with increased fertility; they breed more and have larger litters. So, by taking out a couple of pack members, you have actually increased the number of coyotes in that area.

Although not native to the Northeast, clearly coyotes are here to stay. The good news is that they really don’t do a lot of harm to our native wildlife. Keep your pets inside at night and listen for the howling of these adaptable canines.

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