Coyotes moving out of headlands and into city
by C.W. Nevius Sunday, April 13, 2008
Once again, a group of campers has taken up residence in San Francisco's parks. They are stubborn, unfriendly and predatory. And frankly, if something isn't done soon, officials may have to shoot them.
They are coyotes, the latest trend in urban areas.
You will recall that in June, two aggressive coyotes were shot and killed in Golden Gate Park. The pair, a male and female, had attacked a dog in the park, and city officials decided they had to be destroyed. It was a huge controversy at the time, but most people seemed to think that the problem had been solved.
Not even close.
"It is the sense of everybody that we are seeing more coyotes in urban areas," said Golden Gate National Recreation Area spokeswoman Chris Powell. "And we will continue to see more."
So if you were shocked to hear that two wild coyotes were living in the park, right next to homes, streets and supermarkets, you should spend an evening with Deborah Grabien. An author of mystery novels, Grabien and her husband live near the Arguello Gate to Golden Gate Park and often venture in at night to rescue feral cats.
"Oh lord, yes, there's been an increase," she said. "Three months ago, we watched a minipack of three coyotes cross JFK road, next to the de Young Museum. It's ridiculous. They're a disaster to the existing bio system."
And Golden Gate is only one of many new coyote habitats in the city. Mark Landkamer has lived across the street from Glen Canyon since 1998.
"Until last year, we'd never seen one," Landkamer said. "Now I've seen them a lot, a single and a pair. We were like, 'Whaaa?' " Better get used to it. Coyote sightings in cities are becoming commonplace.
"I swear, they've been seen riding the subway in New York City," said Cindy Machado, the animal services director for the Marin Humane Society. "I even have a photo to prove it."
But as Powell says, the Marin Headlands "is the absolutely perfect environment" for coyotes. That's why the city may soon be facing the kind of coyote melodrama that has been playing out in the Marin Headlands lately.
It began, says GGNRA wildlife ecologist Bill Merkle, around 1994, when, instead of shooting coyotes, California ranchers began employing more-humane control methods. The coyote population began to spike.
"It's not growing geometrically," Merkle said, "but what we are seeing is coyotes showing up in new places. The population has increased since then."
Which is fine. Coyotes are very cool animals - cute, adaptable, and extremely smart.
People, however, are less intelligent.
In the headlands case, despite constant warnings not to feed or interact with the coyotes, one female in particular began to get food from lots of human sources. Tourists tempted her with snacks, a group of contractors shared lunch, and even some of the park personnel - who should have known better - slipped the coyote a little treat.
The inevitable result is a female that has not only lost her fear of humans, she thinks she's in charge. Recently, there were reports of her dashing out of the bushes to chase bicyclists, and even strolling up to picnics to demand a meal.
"And being a female," Merkle said, "there's a concern that she will have pups and teach them, 'Here's where we find food, it's bologna sandwiches.' And then instead of one animal, we have four or five."
Bay Area officials are concerned enough about the coyote increase to have formed the Coyote Coalition, a group of local humane societies and researchers. The group was called in to deal with the Marin marauder. They had a well-researched game plan, high-tech equipment and a large staff.
And they have pretty much failed miserably.
They tried air horns, which didn't faze her, and popping her with paintballs shot out of guns. Not only did paintballs not work, the coyote quickly learned the sound of the truck the paintball shooter drove and ducked into the bushes as soon as it turned the corner.
So, you say, maybe they could trap it. Maybe you'd like to try, they reply.
"We had a researcher out here, and she had a devil of a time catching enough for her study," Merkle said. "I think she was here two or three years and ended up only catching four."
Ask him what's next, and Merkle begins tap dancing. He says GGNRA authorities are "kind of at a decision point" and "kind of on the fence" but admits they "might have to take an action to remove an animal."
That's right. They may have to shoot it. Brace yourself for the uproar.
But that's not the scary part. It is very likely that this is just the beginning of a problem. What everyone is hoping is that the signs and warnings about feeding coyotes will be heeded by humans and animals won't become socialized to the point where they are dangerous.
Because very soon this could be the city's problem. Based on tissue samples, it seems almost certain that the city's growing coyote population is coming from Marin, where such social behavior has already taken root.
And how are they getting across the bay? Merkle and others think they use the Golden Gate Bridge. That surprises some people, but I don't see why.
After all, it is the toll-free direction.
C.W. Nevius' column appears on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.