Sept 1, 2006


NBCS is Uncovering Answers - Why So Many Coyotes?

The short version.

This past year the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study targeted coyote resource use in an effort to develop management and coexistence strategies for this newly-established native top predator.  During the past year we documented the home range and movements of coyotes from 10 packs with defended territories and revealed the additional presence of nomads (individual dispersers and offspring from the packs) inhabiting undefended regions between the territories.  

Results from the first year were beyond our expectations.  Our data strongly point to reasons why coyotes

1)      hang around neighborhoods

2)      seem so bold or unafraid of people

3)      appear to be getting more numerous.  

First, we found that coyotes in our study area were thriving, both in good condition and well fed.  Abundant food resources are known to cause coyote populations to grow.  Indeed we seem to have more than ever before.   Ten years ago most people had never seen a coyote on Aquidneck Island or Jamestown – now they are everywhere on both islands.  

The types of food resources they were using gave us a real surprise, however.  Our data showed coyotes eat vast amounts of unnatural food resources in our study area.  Coyotes are taking advantage of food provided indirectly or directly by people.

Early this year we realized the information we were collecting could be key to the management of coyotes here in coastal Rhode Island.  The short version is simple:  


If we want to manage coyotes 

we need to stop feeding coyotes.  


The full story.  

Scientists at The Conservation Agency started the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study because we realized that the coyote population was becoming an issue here, just as the expanding deer population had.  Coyotes were increasingly in the news and people’s pets were disappearing.  We saw a need for regionally-relevant scientific data that could be used for coexistence and management strategies as coyotes became more numerous.  Over a two-year period we developed a completely unique study methodology involving HABIT Research GPS collars that record hourly positions of collared coyotes 24 hours a day.  While much more expensive than conventional radio tracking we felt it would pay off.

After a year of preparation, we kicked off the NBCS in June 2005 by setting out to collar 10 coyotes from 10 packs on Jamestown and Aquidneck Island .  We met our goal this June and are continuing onward.  

The HABIT collars were a great investment.  When we transferred the coyote GPS locations to ArcGIS software, we quickly saw patterns in behavior.  We saw that that coyotes normally slept from dawn to dusk in brushy or forested lands and came out into the open to forage during the night – what we now call “coyote business hours.”  As we mapped the coyotes’ hourly locations during “business hours” we saw that certain spots on the island got repeated nightly coyote visits.  Mapped in 3D these areas looked like mountains (see picture below). 

The more the coyotes used them, the higher the mountain peaks .  We began to visit these areas ourselves.  Before long a pattern began to develop; we realized we had stumbled on the answers we needed.  It was all about food.

Here are some of the abundant resources we found coyotes taking advantage of:  

Road killed deer left unburied.  From scats and remains on coyote trails we know coyotes are getting significant fall and winter sustenance from deer.   In Rhode Island over 1000 deer are reported killed on roads each year.  Some are buried; many are taken to dumps, dump sites, or just pushed off the road.  Our data revealed that coyotes find the carcasses and feast on everything but the larger bones.  The significance of this is clear if you do the math.  For example, if each year only half of all road kills get buried, and we estimate that the average unburied deer contains 150 lbs of coyote-edible material, then 75,000 pounds of food will be available for coyotes state-wide each year.  And this is just deer.  It does not include road-killed raccoons, skunks, opossums, woodchuck, rabbits and other food sources.

Deer shot but not recovered by hunters.  Most deer hunters diligently attempt to bring in every deer they hit.  Some deer, however, get sub-lethal wounds and escape to the brambles unrecovered despite the best human efforts.  Our data indicate that these deer are usually tracked down, killed, and eaten by coyotes.  On Jamestown in the 2005-6 season hunters estimate they lost 15-20 deer on Jamestown.  Estimating again at 150 lbs of edible food per deer that’s 2,250 to 3,000 pounds of food available to coyotes last winter on Jamestown alone.  

Unintentional coyote feeding.  This is a broad category that contains the following:  

a.  compost or refuse piles

b.  pet feeding on porches or outdoors

c.  feral cat feeding using feeding stations in the woods

d.  feeding other wildlife with food that coyotes eat.

The most significant refuse pile we found contained three dead cows and several stillborn calves.  This provides essentially unlimited food for coyotes in that area and was used by at least 7 of them we know of.  It is also noteworthy that this pack had basically unlimited food resources and were in peak condition during the breeding season (winter).   Feral cat feeding which occurs in a score of places on Jamestown and Aquidneck Island probably provides more consistently available food.  The coyotes regularly visit these feeding stations.  They eat the cat food left there or the cats. Similarly, backyard pet feeding, or wildlife feeding, trains coyotes to visit houses and frequent neighborhoods.  All of these resources delivered by people train coyotes (just like dogs) to associate people with food.  It explains why coyotes are becoming bolder and even venture out into neighborhoods during the day.  

Intentional coyote feeding.  We were very surprised to find out this occurs.  Invariably people feeding coyotes have good intentions and do not realize it is a really bad idea.  For example, one person was feeding coyotes dog food in a neighborhood woodlot with the hope of  distracting the resident coyotes from pursuing the neighbors cats which were being left outdoors at night.
 The "Seabees" at dawn resting at the Navy Base.  This litter of pups spent about 2 weeks at this location alternately sleeping and playing while their parents hunted  in adjacent areas.   Photo Numi Mitchell.

Unfortunately it had the opposite effect – the dog food caused coyotes to be attracted to the neighborhood and the woodlot became a favorite hangout (day and night) greatly increasing the risk to the neighborhood cats.  Other  people we have spoken with feed coyotes because they enjoy watching them.  This too causes coyotes to make regular visits to the feeders’ yard.  They may take neighborhood pets en route or appear frighteningly bold to neighbors unaware that the coyotes are being, basically, trained to expect food in the neighborhood.

Think of it this way - if there are four coyote packs on Jamestown and six packs on Aquidneck island it only takes 10 people feeding (one in each coyote pack territory) to tame and train all the coyotes in Newport County to expect food near humans.  


Remember – more food means more coyotes.  Our discovery that humans are extensively subsidizing coyotes is intriguing because it ties the management of coyotes to the management of people.  One can see that the abundance and availability of the primary coyote food resources we identified are within our control.   Just as coyotes respond to abundant food by breeding, they respond to a decrease in resources by having fewer pups.  Unlike deer which, unless culled by predators, breed indiscriminately until they exhaust resources and starve, coyotes control their own numbers.  This means that if we decrease food resource availability here in Rhode Island coyote numbers should drop to sustainable levels. 

With effective deployment of resource limiting strategies we will be able to decrease human subsidies to coyotes, which will, in turn, lower coyote numbers. The obvious and important implication of this situation is that, along with some required regulatory changes, widespread public education is absolutely key to coyote management in Rhode Island.  

Rhode Islanders are in the unique position of being able to control coyotes through public education and policy shift.  For the average community resident it boils down to a simple rule:  don’t feed the coyotes.  For policymakers it means programmatic, regulatory, and legislative change.  The Narragansett Bay Coyote Study will continue working this year to move management initiatives along by:  1) increasing the sample size, rigor, and credibility of our database through continued research, 2) developing partnerships to jointly run community and school education/outreach programs, 3) regular updating of our website keeping it the “go to” place for regional coyote information, 4) working with DEM to develop and implement regulatory management initiatives.  

Coyote location points in Newport are plotted in 3D creating a landscape of coyote habitat use.  The more coyotes visit an area the higher the mountain above it.    Beneath the isolated peak at top-center center is a neighborhood in which suspected from our data - then confirmed - that people were feeding coyotes.   Data from NBCS.



Thanks to the insight and proactive support of Senator Paiva-Weed, the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study is pleased to announce that we have received a legislative grant for our work in 2006-7.  

We are very grateful to Senator Paiva-Weed who brought our study to the attention of the Senate and conveyed the importance and timely nature of the project to the assembly.  In the current budget year this is no mean feat and we are very thankful for her efforts and understanding.


Portsmouth Middle School Names Their Coyote "Jepsy!"

Jepsy, formerly known as C2, is our largest male coyote (48 lbs).  He is over a year old now and lives with his pack in Portsmouth.  He and the rest of the Portsmouth Pack regularly range from Belville Pond Campground, to the north, and south to the edge of the Navy Base.  Generally he stays on the west side of East Main Road (Rte 138) which seems to be the dividing line between his pack and the Black Point Pack (represented by our newest male C20). 

The children at Portsmouth Middle School chose the name for two reasons:  his wide ranging behavior make him seem like a Gipsy and the fact that the center of his home range is Jepson Lane - hence the name "Jepsy" a combination that suits him well.  Jepson Lane is also the home of the Portsmouth Middle school.

Last year the school did class projects on coyotes focusing on why people should not feed them.  These are real Coyote Kids!


The Narragansett Bay Coyote Study's goal is to gather and reach out with scientific data that will help Rhode Island passively maintain coyote populations at sustainable levels by decreasing food resource availability.  

We strongly believe Rhode Islanders should be proactive and responsible about these recent colonists - in the interest of public welfare and safety - but also in the interest of the coyote which is a native species filling an important niche here.