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Forum Tackles Rising Coyote Population

About 100 people gathered in the auditorium of the CCRI Newport campus on Oct. 2 to hear a presentation on the state of the coyote population on Aquidneck Island, followed by a forum on what can be done to lessen the perceived nuisances they are causing residents.

Panelists included Dr. Numi Mitchell of Rhode Island’s Conservation Agency and lead scientist of the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study, and biologist Charles Brown of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, along with animal control officers from the island’s three communities.

The gathering was part of the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission’s “Smart Island” public engagement forums. This event was also sponsored by Coyote Smarts, a public information initiative that is a partnership with the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission [AIPC], the Potter League for Animals, the Norman Bird Sanctuary, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey and the Aquidneck Land Trust.

Mitchell’s research supports what coyote experts have been saying for some time. When you decrease the available food sources and educate the public about the dangers of feeding coyotes in urban and residential neighborhoods, the population is self-contained. Basically, they are then limited to hunting other smaller wild animals and sticking to their respective territories.

“They are very, very territorial. Which is actually a bonus,” she said. “When they have more food, they have more puppies.”

Mitchell said that the number of coyotes in Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth grew slightly in recent years, with an increase in the packs from 7 in 2006 to 10 today, although she stressed precise numbers are difficult to pin down due to the animals’ difficulty to recapture after they have been tagged.

“There is a maximum of 50 resident coyotes on the island,” she said. “And there is another 50 to 100 transient coyotes that are wandering around. Coyotes are here and they are not going anywhere.”

Mitchell tackled a common misconception about the local coyote population, namely that they are new to the City-by-the-Sea and surrounding areas. In fact, coyotes have lived in the region since the 1960s, she said, moving westward from the Great Plains over the past half-century and replacing the native wolf population, whose numbers have dwindled.

“They’ve just expanded their range over the last century to the Eastern states,” she said

With the cooperation of RIDEM, Mitchell’s team captured and released about 40 coyotes, fitting them with GPC collars to track their movements.

Mitchell gave examples where addressing a food source led to a decrease in human interactions, such as around Newport’s Carroll Avenue, where a coyote had returned frequently to take advantage of pear trees that had dropped pieces of fruit.

“They will become very bold [and] expect food to be there,” she said. “Coyotes are getting subsidized by people. And these kinds of food we can actually control.”

In Middletown, multiple coyotes had returned day and night when a woman left food out for them. “She was feeding them,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell was asked by attendees if coyotes could be eradicated by force. “The coyote population bounces back to the former population pretty quickly,” she said.

Brown said a healthy management of the coyote population was the answer, decrying talk of terminating them.

“Wildlife is held in the public trust. The people own wildlife,” he said. “The model of wildlife conservation has been successful in North America.”

Over the past decade, municipalities have passed “no feeding” ordinances that have put teeth in enforcement. “This is the perfect solution,” said Mitchell. “But [the municipalities] need to enforce them.”

She said the ordinances outlawing feeding coupled with an effort to safely dispose of dead livestock and roadkill through a kind of industrial garbage disposal, dubbed a “Safe Cycle,” has helped decrease coyote sightings.

“If we aggressively manage ourselves, and the food subsidies we are providing, coyotes will manage their own population and keep their own numbers down based on natural foods available,” she said.