Martin Main firstname.lastname@example.org, 239-658-3400
Jeanne Murphy 727-582-2100
GAINESVILLE, Fla.—They’ve long been a symbol of the wild open spaces of the American West. Now coyotes are making themselves at home in Florida’s suburbs.
But suburbanites need not fear the predators in their backyards as long as they use common sense, says Martin Main, a wildlife ecologist with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“Coyotes have a negative image, but on the whole they’re probably good for the ecosystem,” Main said. “The coyote is just another poor guy trying to make a living, and in doing so he’s killing smaller predators that feed on native birds and other wildlife. Of course, that’s small comfort if the smaller predator happens to be your cat.”
Main is one of the lead researchers in the South Florida Coyote Study, an annual survey that tracks populations of coyotes as they spread through Florida — the coyote’s final frontier.
Once confined to the western states, the coyote has spread to virtually all of North America in the last century. The spread is due partly to human efforts to exterminate wolves, larger predators that kill coyotes. But it’s also due to the coyote’s famously clever nature: normally solitary predators that avoid humans and prey on small animals, coyotes can learn to live off garbage and may venture onto farms to prey on calves or other small livestock.
Though hunters released a few of them in Florida as early as the 1920s, coyotes didn’t establish themselves in the Sunshine State until the 1960s, when populations from Alabama and Georgia moved into the Panhandle. Since then coyotes have spread to all but the southern tip of Florida, with researchers finding evidence of coyotes as far south as Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in Collier County.
Until recently, the influx of coyotes has been of concern only to ranchers, who occasionally lose calves to the predators. But in the past two or three years, Main said, researchers have fielded a growing number of reports about coyotes living and hunting in the Florida suburbs.
Among other examples, Main cites increasing sightings of the predators at Panhandle airports, as well as a 2002 incident in which firefighters rescued a coyote from a canal in a Collier County subdivision under construction. But so far, suburban coyotes have created the biggest stir in Pinellas County, where residents blamed the wily predators for the disappearance of several housecats in 2003.
“We know we have coyotes because we’ve seen them,” said Jeanne Murphy, park naturalist for UF’s Pinellas County Extension Service at Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo. Murphy said the park is home to a group of at least three to five coyotes which are spotted almost nightly by park rangers.
Those sightings are just a sign of things to come, Main said. In the five years since the coyote study began, researchers have found populations of coyotes steadily increasing. Though the survey currently counts coyotes only in wildlife preserves, Main said, higher populations will mean more coyotes venture into the suburbs in search of new places to hunt. And development is bringing humans into territory already claimed by coyotes, Main said.
“I think of the coyote as a case study for the future,” he said. “As development takes up more and more habitat, we’re going to see more and more encounters with urban wildlife of this sort.”
While the presence of coyotes in a suburban neighborhood can make people anxious, Main says, coyotes are not likely to cause problems as long as people exercise common sense. A small animal — the largest coyote collected by Main in Florida weighed just 39 pounds — coyotes have typically shied away from humans in the past.
In recent years, suburban residents in Western states have occasionally reported coyotes approaching or attacking small children or harassing people as they walk their pets. But Main says these attacks are rare and are probably due to coyotes losing their fear of humans — something that often happens when people feed coyotes.
“People may think it’s cute or an act of kindness to feed coyotes — until someone gets bitten,” he said. “Then everybody changes their tune and starts saying we should kill them all. We need to show all wild animals respect and recognize that if you really want to do these animals a favor, you’ll just stay away from them and let them go about their business in peace.”
The predators do pose a danger to housecats and small dogs, Main said, though people can lessen the risk by bringing in their pets at night. And Main believes coyotes could play an important role in the state’s ecosystem by controlling populations of feral cats.
“Anybody who has lived in Florida knows that the state hosts a wide variety of migrating birds,” Main said. “Both feral and domestic cats — predators we’ve introduced to the state — kill those birds, including species that are endangered.”
Coyotes may also provide an ecological benefit by controlling populations of small predators, such as raccoons, that raid nests and eat eggs, he said.
Once they’re established in an area, Main said, coyotes are there to stay. He notes that farmers across the country have tried to wipe out coyotes using a number of methods, including shooting, trapping and even poisoning, but coyote populations have recovered and even grown despite those measures.
“You’ll never permanently exterminate the coyote by any means that has been tried yet,” Main said. “If you could, there wouldn’t be a single coyote in the entire state of Texas. Out west, they’ve tried every trick in the book.”