Wildlife biologists: Protect pets, because coyotes in Lowcountry to stay

jkidd@beaufortgazette.comDecember 30, 2013 

A state wildlife biologist has bad news for those concerned about the prevalence of coyotes in the Lowcountry and elsewhere in the state: They're here to stay.

The good news is that they pose little threat to humans, according to Charles Ruth of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, although coyotes are likely to treat any cats, small dogs and other household pets they encounter as prey.

That's exactly what has riled some in Mount Pleasant, where residents of the Wakendaw Lakes say they suspect the predators killed their cats.

Several years ago, residents of Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island reported similar concerns -- as well as coyote sightings and coyote scat, or droppings, along the community's bike paths.

Carlos Chacon of the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head said coyotes appear to be abundant on Pinckney Island, as well.

"You hardly ever see them because they're nocturnal," Chacon said. "But if you walk on Pinckney Island, you see (their scat) everywhere. It's very distinct because it's full of hair because of what they eat."

Coyotes eat small animals such as rabbits, rodents and fawn, as well as plant matter, such as berries and fruit.

Occasionally, coyotes will eat adult deer, Chacon said, adding that probably helps manage the deer population, which has no other natural predators in this area.

And yes, coyotes will eat pets -- particularly cats and small dogs -- given the opportunity, according to Ruth.

Moving pet food inside and keeping areas around homes free of garbage is one way to reduce coyotes' attraction to residential areas, according to the DNR website. Keeping pets inside at night will help prevent such killings, as well, Ruth said.

According to Chacon, even that precaution is not usually necessary for larger dogs or for those who do not live near heavily wooded areas, where coyotes typically hunt.

But make no mistake, coyotes are all around.

"Historically, the Mississippi River was a natural boundary," Ruth said. "They are primarily a western species. ... But 60 to 80 years ago, they made it across, and once that happened, there was nothing to stop them from going all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, and over time, that's what happened."

The first reported coyote sightings in South Carolina were in 1978 in Pickens and Oconee counties. Since then, they've been spotted in every county in the state. Hunters started illegally importing them for hunts in the late 1980s, speeding up their proliferation through South Carolina by several years, according to DNR.

Coyotes will never be eliminated, but their numbers could be lowered through trapping and shooting, according to the DNR website.

Ruth added a question in the late 1990s to an annual survey sent to all licensed deer hunters. It asked whether hunters had killed coyotes incidental to their deer hunting during the past season and, if so, where and how many.

Based on questionnaire responses, coyote populations rose dramatically in the years after the question was first asked. Hunters reported killing 5,000 to 6,000 in the first year and about 30,000 a decade later. However, Ruth said the populations seem to have leveled out in recent years.

"The thing about it is, they are here now. They're ubiquitous in all counties," Ruth said. "... I know it's novel to some folks, but it's getting to be old news."

Even development isn't likely to stem their population dramatically, Ruth said.

"Coyotes are a lot like deer in the sense that unless you flat pave it over, they're going to do fine," he said.

Hunting coyotes on private lands during the day is allowed year-round. Night hunting is permitted with certain weapons restrictions. In both cases, a hunting license is required, according to DNR.

No hunting license is required to shoot coyotes within 100 yards of a residence. However, in all situations, local laws and firearms ordinances apply.

Trapping season for coyotes is from Dec. 1 to March 1.

Prentiss Findlay of The (Charleston) Post & Courier contributed to this report. Follow managing editor Jeff Kidd at twitter.com/InsidePages.

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