Florida's wily coyotes adapt to change

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

Twenty-five years ago, many Floridians might have thought of coyotes as animals scratching out a living amid the arid landscapes of the Southwestern United States. After all, it was usually a desert mesa that Wile E. Coyote plummeted from in pursuit of the Road Runner, not the top of a cabbage palm or granddaddy oak.

But sometime in the late 1980s, biologists started documenting the movements of coyotes to the Southeastern part of the country.

“They are established in all 57 counties in the state of Florida,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Assistant Wildlife Biologist Eric Dennis. “Eradication is not going to be an option. They’re here, and we’re going to have to deal with them.”

Dennis said changes in the environment, such as habitat destruction and the reduction, or disappearance, of certain other animals species made it easier for coyotes to migrate East.

Known by biologists as Canis latrans, Coyotes need open spaces, Dennis explained, and as deforestation became more prevalent in the east, the new sparser terrain was better suited to their lifestyle. Plus, the reduction in competing species such as bears or the disappearance of red wolves in Florida also made it easier.

“Coyotes really don’t have any natural predators, other than the automobile or human hunter.”

So, Dennis said, FWC created in January the Coyote Management Action Team to try and deal with issues that arise from the presence of the anim als. The CMAT is trying to figure out how to deal with these members of the dog family that, more and more, according to Dennis, are settling in residential areas, especially as development continues to encroach upon Florida’s wildlife.

“The thought that comes into play currently is that coyotes eat a lot of pets, dogs and cats and things like that.”

But Dennis said examination of the coyote’s scat reveals little evidence that these exotic species are eating cats and dogs. They are known to go after turkey and quail, but that’s the exception, he said. Coyotes tend to go after prey in the 2 – 3 pound range, which mostly includes animals such as moles, mice, voles and rabbits.

Some groups think coyotes should be eradicated, Dennis said.  Ranchers sometimes have problem with coyotes attacking horses or calves when a pack gets big enough. But the opposing argument to eradication is that coyotes fill an ecological niche left open by the disappearance of red wolves.

The elusive coyote, most active at dawn and dusk, can also carry rabies, Dennis said. “But really, domesticated animals carry rabies more than wild populations.” Cats are the second highest carrier of the disease, he said. 

A report from the University of Florida states that coyotes can also carry eastern equine encephalitis, salmonellosis and at least 11 types of parasites. The report also suggests that the animals can be direct competitors for indigenous foxes and bobcats. The coyote’s predation on deer may also have an affect on the struggling Florida panther, though more research is needed.

Dennis said he gets, on average, about four or five calls per month about nuisance coyotes. Calls tend to go up during the breeding season, which is in late winter and early spring. The Southwest region of Florida has a much higher coyote population, he said, thus FWC gets about one call per day in those areas.

Control of the animals, in many rural settings, is something the landowner is permitted to take in to his or her own hands, he said.

“They can be shot year round on private property,” he said, adding that local ordinances should always be checked first. A special permit to shoot a gun at night, generally against the law in Florida, can be obtained from FWC for people trying to catch coyotes when they’re most active. Coyotes can also be trapped and snared, though a permit is also required if wanting to use steel foothold traps.

FWC does not practice animal removal, Dennis said. And local animal control agencies rarely respond to anything other than instances that involve domesticated animals. Trappers in each county can be located through links on FWC’s website: www.myFWC.com.