No Big Threat, But Coyotes Here To Stay: UF Research Monitors Rising Animal Populations In Florida
IMMOKALEE—Known more for their eerie howls in Western movie classics, coyotes also have become a permanent part of the Florida landscape.
To understand how they affect the state’s environment and human population, University of Florida researchers have been monitoring these new Florida residents for the past four years.
“So far, they are of little threat to people or livestock, but we still need to learn more about coyote habits to avert any potential problems,” said Steve Coates, senior biologist with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Although wildlife managers have reported coyotes preying upon endangered species such as sea turtles, nesting birds or burrowing owls, the harm coyotes could do is limited, said Martin Main, a UF wildlife ecologist at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee.
“Will they cause some problems? Yes. Will they threaten the environment? No. Will they kill wildlife? Yes, they have to survive somehow. Will they cripple the cattle industry? No,” Main said.
Counting coyotes is difficult because the population is relatively sparse, Main said. But he estimated in areas such as North Florida where they are more numerous, a 10-square-mile section typically would be home to a family of about a half dozen coyotes.
“All we know for certain is, they appear to be increasing and now they’re showing up in places they hadn’t before,” Main said.
To keep tabs on the growing coyote population, movement and potential long-term threat, UF researchers have been working with other wildlife specialists to trap and fit them with collars that contain radio transmitters. They also are using track surveys to see where coyotes are spreading most rapidly.
“I’ve tracked them in every county except Dade and Monroe,” Main said, “but they’re probably there too.”
But Coates said it is too soon to know the coyotes’ true impact on some of the other native and endangered animals.
“The jury is still out on how they will affect endemic species,” he said. “For example, there is some concern on how coyotes might impact sea turtle eggs.”
Farmers and ranchers also seem concerned, Coates said, though opinions are divided on whether the animals cause serious harm to livestock.
“We know that coyotes will kill some calves, and that this is a learned behavior,” Main said.
The number of reported calf-killings in Florida has risen steadily from 1992 to 1997. Fourteen cattlemen reported calf loss to coyotes in 1996 in North Florida, with a similar rise in numbers through 1997 in South Florida, according to UF research.
But in other instances, coyotes’ presence has actually helped ranchers. Research conducted in Western states shows that coyotes tend to form territorial pairs that protect the livestock from other coyotes that might drift through.
“If a calf-killing problem does not exist, it may be wise to let the resident coyotes stay, as more coyotes could otherwise come into the area and compete for space,” he said.
Although their research will ultimately help determine the number of coyotes in Florida, Coates said it is still too soon for them to know just how many of them roam the state.
To track the spread and growth of the coyote population, Main and Coates are working with Mel Sunquist, UF professor of wildlife ecology and conservation; and Pat Walsh, wildlife biologist at the U.S. Air Force bombing range in Avon Park, as well as 40 cooperators at state parks, wildlife management areas and other public lands across Florida.
“Cooperators work on public areas in South and Central Florida and help to gather data from track station surveys and scent stations,” Main said.
Researchers conduct yearly statewide track surveys by clearing an area 1 meter across to create a track surface. They then place a scent bait that attracts wildlife, including coyotes.
By recording animal tracks, Main said they can monitor the numbers of coyotes, fox, bobcats and raccoons in an area.
“Tracking helps us understand the increase or decrease in these animals’ numbers and how one species might be affecting the existence of another,” Main said.
They conduct surveys in February, when coyotes are more active and curious about different scents, Main said.
“That’s when they’re also looking for mates. Once they den up and start looking after their pups, they become less mobile and are less likely to visit track stations,” he said.
Coyotes are smart and they are survivors, very much like people, Main said.
“They learn to adapt and take advantage of situations, which sometimes gets them in trouble. Maybe that’s why there is a general animosity against them,” he said.
But their research has gotten a lot of positive feedback so far, Coates said. “People are happy to hear we are keeping an eye out on coyotes in Florida,” he said.
To find out more about coyote research in Florida, or for tips on how to deal with coyotes, visit http://www.imok.ufl.edu
Florida Coyote Facts:
- In Florida since the 1960s, migrated mostly from Georgia and Alabama
- Looks like a wolf, but with more delicate build and features
- Mostly solitary, though it can form small packs of families
- Feed mainly on rodents, other small mammals and berries
- Do not kill for sport, only for survival
- Calf-killing probably a learned behavior that not all coyotes share
- Calves with half a tail may be sign of coyote attacks
- Problem coyotes may legally be controlled with firearms or with snares year-round during daylight hours
- Illegal to poison coyotes or other predators in Florida
- Do not typically carry rabies, but may be infected with it like any mammal
(Source: Monitoring Coyote Populations, UF/IFAS SWFREC Report, January 2000)