By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
Following an increase in complaints to the town regarding the presence of wild coyotes on Sullivan’s Island, the Public Safety committee is recommending Council consider changing its management plan.
A motion that Council approve “research, funding and implementation of a program to reduce the coyote population in an effort to protect island residents and visitors” was passed following extensive public discussion at the January 3 Public Safety committee meeting. This will replace the current “co-existing with coyotes” plan the town has had in place for the last few months.
The majority of the public comments at the meeting indicated people were afraid that coyotes were killing their cats, pose a threat to their dogs, and that they may even become a threat to humans.
“I live on Florence Street, we’ve had one of our older neighborhood cats gone, and a smaller cat called Cue had a large puncture wound on its side and had to be put down,” Johnathon Anderegg, a Sullivan’s Island resident, said at the meeting. “This past week my sister was at my mother’s house on Thompson Avenue and one came in the back yard and walk toward her. She yelled and it didn’t stop, then she chucked a brick at it and it ran off. If that coyote comes in my yard after my sister or my mom that coyote will be shot. You can plan all this humane stuff, but trapping ‘aint it. It’s not gonna happen.”
The committee discussed various options for dealing with the creatures, but it emerged that trapping and euthanizing was likely the only option. Under State law, coyotes can’t be relocated and the use of any poison to attempt to control coyotes is a violation of both Federal and State law.
“Total eradication would probably be impossible,” John Newland, owner of Critter Control and a former Sullivan’s Island resident, said at the meeting. “The best thing to do is take a pro-active approach of doing some trapping to bring the population down. You’ve got to keep a monitoring program, that’s what I’ve seen in the past. If you don’t do that they’ll just grow.”
This problem is not unique to Sullivan’s Island. According to Newland there are coyotes in North Charleston, Folly Beach and Mount Pleasant. He warned that it will not be possible to get rid of the creatures entirely.
“They’re going to be here for the next 20 or 30 years at least. But if you have a program that works on knocking down the population enough that people won’t feel as threatened by them,” he said.
Currently Sullivan’s Island residents are feeling very threatened. Police Chief Daniel Howard said they are now receiving reports of sightings on a daily basis.
“Since we started tracking in October, I’ve had five cats come up missing, and one set of remains have been found. I’ve also had a report of somebody who watched a coyote stalk their cat,” he said.
If Council decides to move ahead with a plan it will need to determine how to capture the animals. “If you want to use have-a-heart-type traps it’s a lot tougher,” Newland said. ”A soft foot snare won’t hurt the animal. But then again a dog might get in it, and cats that get in a trap like that could be hurt.”
Councilmember and Public Safety Committee member Mary Jane Watson expressed a concern over the use of traps, specifically the obvious danger that people’s pets will become ensnared. She also mentioned that since the coyotes’ arrival on the island, reports of rabbits and rats have plummeted. In an interview following the meeting Chief Howard confirmed that he used to get reports all the time about rats but those have stopped all together since the coyotes came to town.
According to Project Coyote, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting educated coexistence between people and coyotes, coyotes are not a significant predator of pets or deer. Diet studies show that in general rodents, rabbits, insects, fruit and carrion make up the bulk of their diet, depending on season and location.
However, coyotes are territorial and may attack dogs that they see as a threat to that territory. In Saint Louis, Missouri last month there were reports of six attacks on dogs in the area.
Tom Meister, a wildlife biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, told local news station KSDK5 that there was an explanation for the deadly coyote behavior.
“Right now it’s coyote breeding season and so those coyotes are out there establishing their territory,” Meister said. “They see these dogs not so much as food but as a threat to their territory. The typical coyote behavior is to kill the animal. They’re not eating them because of food, but because of territory.”
According to South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, coyotes are generally monogamous and breeding season is from January through March, with pup season being March until May. Coyotes may attack dogs if they feel they or their pups are threatened.
Chauncey Clark, chair of the Public Safety Committee, told the meeting that his personal research has shown attacks on humans are a rare event, and those that have been reported have been to “small humans.”
“But they didn’t kill the child,” he said quickly. “The other is dog walkers. The humane society recommends using a short leash and maintaining control of your dog. But nobody here does that. My concern is if a human’s dog is attacked the natural instinct is for the human to intervene, and that’s a scary idea. My concern is public safety.”
“I agree we need to reduce the population by killing. It’s not something we are going to approach casually or happily, but we need to approach it rationally and get some expertise,” committee member Pat O’Neil said.
The committee’s recommendation to approve research, funding and implementation of a program to reduce the coyote population was discussed at a Town Council workshop January 6. O’Neil said everybody appeared to be in agreement with the recommendation and it will be put forward in a motion at the next Town Council meeting, scheduled for January 21.
However, according to Dr. Paul Paquet, a wildlife biologist who advocates for effective long-term solutions to human-coyote conflicts, killing coyotes may actually exacerbate the problem.
In an interview published on the Project Coyote website, the world-expert on wild canids said “Coyotes usually have an orderly social structure, with the dominant pair of a group breeding once a year. If left alone, family groups and populations are stable, with first year pup mortality at 50-70 percent. If we kill pack members, other members can begin breeding more often, and with more food now available for pup survival, the result is more coyotes.”
Paquet also points out that coyotes kill on average five rodents per day, eat a huge number of insects, remove sick animals from the gene pool and clean up carrion. “It’s not a stretch to say [by killing them] we are clearly working against ourselves,” he said.
Canid ethologist, Dr. Marc Bekoff is also quoted on the website warning that it is “ethically indefensible to wantonly go out and kill coyotes because they try to live among us.” He also argues that “Only rarely is the ‘problem’ coyote caught or killed. When any coyote is killed, another will take its place almost immediately, and that might not be the coyote you’d prefer as your neighbor.”