Three years ago, a coyote with ice-blue eyes lay stock-still as scientists took her blood, weighed her and fixed a GPS collar around her neck on a dirt road near Augusta.
The scientists were from the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry, and they were adding the coyote to what would be the largest study of the animal in the South.
For the next two years, scientists followed coyotes like it across parts of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to try to answer questions they had about how coyotes have become so ubiquitous across the region.
Michael Chamberlain, lead scientist on the study, already knew some things.
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“Well, for one thing coyotes in the Southeast are relying more heavily on deer as prey than Western coyotes do,” he said. Deer hunters, among others, wanted to know more about that. That’s why natural resources agencies from Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina helped pay for the study.
Back then, as far as anyone could tell, the deer that Southern coyotes ate were newborn fawns in the spring and whatever they could scavenge during hunting season. The coyotes in the new study showed Chamberlain something new.
“By and far white-tailed deer were the most important prey resource for resident coyotes,” he said of the study results. And this wasn’t just during hunting season either. “The constant, consistent use of adults throughout the year is something you can't just describe ... (as) scavenging.”
That Southern coyotes hunt deer is probably not the news that hunters wanted, but there’s no love lost. Already Georgia hunters kill about 40,000 coyotes annually, and the state is in the second year of a bounty contest.
Even so, the effect on the coyote population is negligible. The population is stable, maybe even growing. To understand why, you need to understand the study's other key finding.
“What we've ended up figuring out is there really are two types of coyotes,” Chamberlain said. There are resident coyotes, perhaps a quarter-million strong in Georgia. Those are mated pairs on territories of about 10 square miles that typically have farmland and hedgerows and maybe some forest. The typical rural, Southern, man-made landscape.
"Imagine a puzzle with pieces that don't fit tightly together, and the puzzle pieces are these resident territories," Chamberlain said. In the deep, wet woods, you see the big shift to (coyotes') deer hunting. Otherwise they stick to small animals such as rabbits. Resident coyotes avoid people.
Then there are the other coyotes.
“There are these transient animals which are somewhat nomadic. They don't maintain space,” Chamberlain said. Transients are young animals just leaving home or maybe formerly resident animals who lost their mate. There’s something like 90,000 of them in Georgia.
Transients move in the spaces between the puzzle pieces. Those are power-line cuts, highways, neighborhoods and cities. These are very human places through which transients move 60, 70, sometimes 100 miles at a time.
So when a resident coyote dies, there’s a transient coyote in the wings who hops into a puzzle piece and settles down.
“It essentially means that you need to put a 50- to 70-square-mile circle around your property and recognize that that's what you're actually managing,” Chamberlain said by way of advice to owners of hunting land. It makes coyote management feel like a game of whack-a-mole.
Charlie Killmaster, lead deer biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources agreed. “Yeah, it does,” he said. “At the property level it does.”
Killmaster said you have to think bigger than your hunting club, like statewide bigger. Hence the open season on coyotes in Georgia and the bounty contest. But ironically, shooting every coyote on sight doesn’t accomplish much.
“Indiscriminate coyote harvest is not really that effective for improving things for wildlife,” he said. Instead, do your homework and really target the animal that is causing you trouble. Even then, the effects of more discriminate trapping are short-lived, given the resident/transient relationship.
Chris Mowry is an associate professor of biology at Berry College and a founder of the Atlanta Coyote Project. Once you understand that dynamic, he asked, why kill coyotes at all?
“We just sort of feel like lethal management is futile,” he said. “There are other alternatives.”
Which brings us to what Chamberlain said is the next question in the research.
“It’s to try to understand whether we can alter the landscape in a way that benefits species we are interested in at the detriment of the coyotes' ability to prey on those species,” he said. That is to say if the deep woods where deer have a hard time escaping coyotes should be regularly thinned out, it might push coyotes to prey on rabbits or other small game instead.
Whatever happens next, it doesn’t look like coyotes — or humans — are going anywhere anytime soon.