State wildlife officials say the number of coyotes in South Carolina appears to have leveled off in recent years, though many rural landowners and farmers might argue otherwise.
"I think I have about 10,000 on my farm," said D. Glenn McFadden, chairman of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources board, which heard a presentation on coyotes Wednesday.
McFadden was exaggerating, and some areas of the state see relatively few of the animals. With 23 coyotes harvested by deer hunters in 2013, Beaufort County ranks last in the state, a shift from second-to-last the previous year, according to DNR. Jasper County ranked 39th out of 40 counties, with 338 coyotes trapped and killed.
However, DNR has heard many complaints like McFadden's in recent years. The agency has ramped up its battle with coyotes by staging seminars throughout the state, hoping to turn landowners and hunters into foot soldiers in the war.
"People just want DNR to make the coyotes go away," said Emily Cope, deputy director of wildlife and freshwater fisheries. "We can't do that."
The seminars, conducted alongside Clemson Extension staffers, are designed to help landowners learn how to deal with coyotes.
Trapping is the most effective control method, though it takes skill and equipment many landowners don't have. Cope is working with a group that competes in predator call competitions, hoping they can teach landowners how to lure the notoriously shy critters.
The plan is to put "another tool in the hands of landowners so they can pick and choose which one they are most comfortable using," Cope said.
The agency also is working on several coyote information posters. One would be placed around neighborhoods, giving tips on how to live safely near them.
"The strategy you take in managing and living with coyotes in residential areas is very different from what you do on a farm," she said. "It's how to live wisely with these animals."
DNR spokesman Brett Witt said it's difficult to tell where populations are most concentrated. However, some Hilton Head Island residents and staff members at the Coastal Discovery Museum have said coyotes can be found in Sea Pines and on Pinckney Island.
"Given how ubiquitous this animal is across the state, it would be surprising if they weren't," Witt said.
Coyotes, long an icon of the western U.S., have been recorded in South Carolina since the late 1970s. They first started showing up in Oconee and Pickens counties. Because they weren't found then in North Carolina or Georgia, wildlife experts suspect the first coyotes were imported into the state by people.
They spread quickly, showing up in the Pee Dee by the late 1980s and in every county in the state by the middle 1990s, according to DNR. State officials have no reliable estimate on the coyote population, but their howl now can be heard at night throughout the state.
While they look like scrawny dogs, coyotes strike a sense of foreboding in many people. Mount Pleasant authorities have dealt with coyotes scaring children at a playground in the shadow of the USS Yorktown. A study at the Savannah River Site implicated coyotes in a high percentage of deer fawn deaths there. They are more likely to prey on small animals such as rats, mice or chickens.
The most effective control method has been to encourage deer hunters already in the woods to shoot coyotes when they see them. Last year, the state legislature also approved night hunting of coyotes and wild hogs to help control the populations.
Something appears to be working. The natural resources agency surveys deer hunters each year, including a question about how many coyotes they have taken during the season. The coyote harvest numbers increased tremendously from the late 1990s until 2010. But the numbers have leveled out, averaging right around 30,000 over the past four years.
If the coyote population in the state has hit a plateau, it's a higher plateau than anyone would like, Cope said. Several members of the DNR board agreed.
"As a landowner, we see them all over the place, but they are so elusive," said Larry Yonce, a Johnston peach farmer who serves on the board. "They're so fast that by the time you get your rifle out, they're out of range."
The agency needs to determine "what is the best method to get these things under control," Yonce said, "because they are bad news."
Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette staff writer Rebecca Lurye contributed to this report.