By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Contributing Editor
It’s been two years since coyotes first showed up on Isle of Palms, but if the new mayor Jimmy Carroll gets his way their days on our island paradise are numbered. Carroll told Island Eye News that he feels strongly the previous council’s policy to co-exist with the creatures is not working, despite having been on that council. “I have a clear and accurate picture that coexisting is not going to work,” he said. “Because we are seeing more and more coyotes around the island. We’ve even seen an animal attacked in front of its owner. They’re becoming more brazen,” he said. “If we know the population is growing and we don’t do something about it then we are failing.” Isle of Palms’ current coyote policy involves educating the public on how to co-exist with the non-native creature. The city has also engaged the services of a trapper, however, only one critter has been caught since trapping began in February 2016. Down the road on Sullivan’s Island, a similar policy is in place, with trapping being used if and when a coyote becomes deemed as a threat. Coyotes have inhabited Sullivan’s slightly longer, arriving in 2013, but reports of sightings and incidents are far fewer. No coyotes have been trapped by the town, but Town Administrator Andy Benke says private individuals have successfully trapped coyotes on their property.
“Between February 2016 and November 2017, we’ve had less than five sightings called in,” Acting Police Chief Chris Griffin told Island Eye News. While some pet owners have spoken up saying their cats and small dogs have been killed by coyotes, there has been no direct evidence reported to the town, according to Benke. But this doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Island Eye News spoke with Liz Harris, a Sullivan’s resident whose dog was eviscerated by two “canines” in 2015, at the beach path by Station 29 and Brownell. “I was away, but my sister says a man brought her to the house and said he’d seen two animals attacking her,” she said. “He told my sister that ‘They didn’t look like any dog I’ve ever seen before.’” The man was visiting, so likely not aware of the presence of coyotes on the island, Harris said. They rushed to the emergency vet but Sully, a 12 year-old Brittany Spaniel, died following surgery. The report she received later from the veterinarian said the manner of death indicated a coyote attack. “They said they were not typical wounds from a dog attack,” Harris said. She did not report the vets’ findings to the Town. On Isle of Palms, reports on social media of missing cats and attacks on small dogs have been frequent, although recorded sightings are lower this year than last (109 in 2016 compared to 51 through October 2017, according to data collected by betteriop.com), however new councilmember Susan Hill Smith cautions not to put too much emphasis on those figures. “I think people have got to the point of not really reporting it because they felt like it was not really going to change much, or because to them it’s so common [to see a coyote],” she said. Carroll believes that residents have felt ignored on this issue, and credits his recent election to this. “People made a very conscious decision in electing people who hear their concerns,” he said. “That’s why there was a major turnaround in IOP politics.”
Carroll and Smith both defeated incumbent members in the November 2017 election, and three other new councilmembers were also elected. Finding a Solution What is the new mayor going to do about the issue of coyotes? “Right now I can’t give you an answer to what to do – but what I can tell you is we are going to do something, rather than just co-existing,” he said. “We are going to have another public forum in January, with representatives from SCDNR, and maybe some groups expert in the elimination and capture of coyotes. It’s clear that coexisting is not an option.” Smith agrees. “I think we need to do more and come back together and look at what our options are. It seems to me we can do more with trapping, and I’d like to see what we can do to partner with private landowners more effectively to have more of an organized trapping effort,” she said. “We’ve already decided as a community that we are okay with removing them. Unfortunately, by law we have to kill them, but we don’t seem to have done a lot in that regard. We need to see what we can do to reasonably trap more.” Both Smith and Carroll are keen to see the coyotes gone because of the perceived threat they pose to pets and humans on the island. When asked what his biggest concern about the creatures’ presence was, Carroll said “I’m most concerned that a child playing in a backyard could be a subject of attack.” While entirely plausible it is highly unlikely, according to Jay Butfiloski, SCDNR Furbearer & Alligator Program Coordinator and Certified Wildlife Biologist. “It’s a common fear but the reality is it’s pretty darn rare. There’s only been one attack I’m aware of [in South Carolina]. It was in 2008 in Pauline, a girl was bit at a bus stop by a rabid coyote,” he told Island Eye News. “There are only two known fatalities ever, one in the 80s and one a couple years ago in Canada. Compare that to 12 to 17 dog deaths a year [in South Carolina].” The most common threat coyotes pose to populated areas is to pets – especially cats and small dogs, which they will kill for food.
“Don’t leave cats out during the night – you shouldn’t anyway, coyotes or not,” Butfiloski said. “Larger dogs may also be a problem, especially during breeding season and when there are pups around, as they see them as a threat. It’s a dog vs dog reaction. Another concern is disease. “Rabies is a concern in the state, we don’t know the prevalence but we do know it occurs,” he said. In 2017 there were three rabid coyotes recorded, 26 rabid raccoon and six rabid cats.
Can they be eliminated? All experts agree that coyotes are here to stay. Sean Poppy, a researcher with Savannah River Ecology Lab at University of Georgia, gave a presentation to interested residents on Dewees Island last month, which had its first coyotes arrive in 2016. He explained that coyotes are native to the Midwest/Great Plains area, but when humans moved in it disrupted their ecosystem and they started spreading out. “Coyotes have survived because they’re adaptable,” he said. “The eradication of wolves and other larger predators has helped them gain a foothold and there are now coyotes in 49 states.” The Eastern coyote is bigger and smarter that the Western coyote, he said. In an urban area their range is 2-3 square miles. “They eat everything,” he said. “Rarely they will go for an adult deer, it’s mainly its fawns. Coyotes also increase the songbird population because they eat mesopredators – skunks, squirrels, raccoons, possums, rats, etc.” They also see small pets as prey. However, Poppy cautions that killing coyotes will not eradicate them permanently. “Shoot or poison coyotes and you will have just as many again within a year or two. Kill one or both members of an alpha pair and other pairs will form and reproduce,” he said. “Additionally, lone coyotes will move in to mate, and young coyotes will have offspring earlier than usual and litter sizes will grow.” A new study done at the Savannah River Site and published in the Journal of Wildlife Management last year, found that evidence coyotes reproduce more if members of the pack are killed was “only weak.” However, it also found that “high immigration rates …render coyote populations extremely difficult to control.” Does this mean there is nothing that can be done about problem coyotes? On the contrary – it’s open season on coyotes in South Carolina, but discharging a firearm on the islands is illegal. Large guard animals such as Great Pyrenees, llamas and donkeys are effective at protecting livestock, but not a realistic solution for a barrier island.
Therefore, trapping is the recommended method. Transporting and relocating a live coyote is illegal, so the trapping needs to be done by a licensed wildlife control operator. Both cities have been trapping for the last 3 years and have caught one animal. Butfiloski says this is because they are using cage traps.
“They don’t work,” he said. “The preferred trap is the leg hold, but a lot of people don’t like them.” There are some “novel” traps the DNR has been exploring he said, including a collar neck snare and a leg snare. Snare traps are illegal, but Butfiloski says that they will work with the city or town and likely permit any measure they want to take. “As long as it’s legal.” The snares work well because they’re hidden, he said. The downside is if it’s not set correctly the collar snare could cinch and potentially kill the trapped animal. “I did caution Sullivan’s and IOP about reacting every time there is a sighting. Just because you remove every single one today doesn’t mean that in 3 months there won’t be more,” Butfiloski said. If the city starts an elimination or reduction program it will have to continue it indefinitely. As a mayor who ran on a fiscally conservative platform, is Jimmy Carroll prepared to spend the money needed to rid the island of its coyote problem? “As mayor, I believe the city needs to be proactive,” Carroll said.