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If you’re looking for coyotes, Dan Eaton’s truck is a good place to start.
Eaton is a professional trapper. He’s been trapping since he was 10 years old — almost 40 years — and long enough to be nonchalant about the dead beaver in his truck bed.
There’s also a large skull and more animal-attracting odors than you can keep track of. Many of the scents, like the coyote gland smell, are home-brews.
“Smells like money,” Eaton said of the coyote lure.
It’s coyotes he’s after this morning. Eaton has set a trap-line on private hunting land outside Augusta. He wants to bag at least one animal, and on this day the landowner will owe him nothing.
“Everybody wants you to trap coyotes for free until you tell them you’re collaring them and letting them go,” he said.
He’s been cutting coyotes loose lately to include them in a new University of Georgia study aimed at understanding just how coyotes are managing to thrive in the South.
One thing scientists — and deer hunters — already know is that unlike western coyotes, southern coyotes are deer hunters. That’s why the landowners he’s been dealing with have been resistant. Most of them don’t want coyotes.
“I told them after the study I’ll come back and if they’re still on their property, I’ll catch those coyotes and take care of them,” Eaton said.
His trapline is near one of the many sloughs running off Clarks Hill Lake west and north of Augusta. He turns off a busy road out of workday traffic onto gravel. There’s a field on one side and piney woods on the other.
Eaton scans spots right beside the road that look like nothing to the untrained eye — but to him look like failed traps.
“Well, Jake, these aren’t paying off buddy,” he said to his assistant.
Past the treeline, though, one trap has been triggered. A bobcat. Luckily for her the bottom has dropped out of the market for her pelt. He’ll let her go later.
Eaton drives on, crossing a muddy pit that puts his 4x4 to the test.
“Ope, got a coyote,” he said.
The ground around the trap is an arc cleared of pine duff where the animal has been working to free itself. Though the coyote is working hard, it is completely silent. No yelps or barks to be heard. The trap holds but doesn’t crush its foot.
Eaton gets his choke stick ready. As he approaches, the animal’s breathing slows.
Then Eaton goes to work. First, he calls to the coyote.
“Hey, hey. Come here buddy,” he said.
Then the choke stick wraps up its neck with a metallic zip. He binds the coyote’s jaws and feet with electrical tape and heads back up to where the biologists wait.
FITTING THE COLLAR
At the top of the hill, Will Gulsby has fired up a GPS collar. He and Michael Chamberlain are the two biologists from the University of Georgia leading this new study.
The VHF radio of the collar hissed to life. The beeping ping of the GPS followed. Each animal in the study will have one of these collars for two years unless, of course, they are shot or run over.
The default setting is a ping back to a computer server every 72 hours to note where in the study area the animal is. If the animals do something interesting, the sample can be made as frequent as every 15 minutes.
Gulsby and Eaton quickly take blood samples, then weigh, measure and fit the coyote with the tracking collar. Its data will be added to a growing coyote DNA database. The animal is motionless and silent except for her labored breathing.
Chamberlain explained her stoicism.
“They understand that they’ve been beaten. So they’ve kind of lost the battle. Very few animals act like coyotes when they’ve been captured,” he said. “Bobcats don’t act like that. Foxes don’t act like that. Coyotes, once the struggle is over, they relax.”
This coyote is one of about 160 that Chamberlain wants for the study. The only larger study was in urban Chicago. There the interface between man and beast was city streets and affluent suburbs.
The southern study is looking at a much broader landscape. Animals are being trapped in the Piedmont regions of Georgia and South Carolina. In Alabama, researchers hope to trap animals from the coastal plain. What they really want to know is how coyotes are negotiating the typical southern mosaic of privately owned timber plantations, agricultural fields and fallow woods.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about how they interact with other species,” Chamberlain said, “There’s a lot of uncertainty about how we will deal with this animal as human beings moving forward.”
Chamberlain said its hard to get a lot of love for a coyote. The reason there’s a niche for them at all is because hunters eradicated Southern cougars and wolves. Coyotes started filling in that niche in a trickle across the Mississippi River about 60 years ago. Now they are everywhere in the South.
For Chamberlain, it’s exciting to work with any keystone predator, even if it is half the size of a red wolf.
“It’s a little bittersweet to realize that this landscape is changed to the point now that the truly large predators that inhabited this landscape are gone,” Chamberlain said.
The trapper and the biologist find the coyote to be about average. It’s an adult female in the neighborhood of 30 pounds.
After a few last checks of records and the GPS collar, Eaton grabs her by the choke stick and the tail to carry her up the road. It’s time for release.
She’s as calm as ever. She finally fights back when her feet hit the ground.
Eaton speaks to her.
“All right girl,” he coos.
Then he unzips the choke stick. She leaps into the air before padding almost silently off the gravel road and into the woods.
She stops about 30 yards past the tree line.
“I’ve watched them many times. They’ll stop and stare back at you and then they’ll go about their way,” Chamberlain said.
Sure enough, about half of the party can see her off in the woods, staring back. The rest of the group can’t see her at all.
If all goes well, all the researchers will know about her for the next two years will come from that GPS collar.