By Mimi Wood, Island Eye News Staff Writer
The City of Isle of Palms is acutely aware of both the island’s increase in the coyote population, and its citizen’s concerns regarding said increase.
In acknowledgment, the city hosted its first Community Coyote Forum on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. It was standing room only at the Recreation Center, as Mayor Dick Cronin introduced a small but informative panel to approximately 230 residents.
Kicking off the two-hour forum was Jay Butfiloski, South Carolina’s DNR coyote expert. Pledging to “provide the community with whatever is requested”, Officer Butfiloski realistically emphasized, “There is no quick fix.” Kimberly Kelly, the State Director of the Humane Society of the United States, agreed. “We need to change our behavior to change coyote behavior,” Kelly said.
A detailed description of coyotes and their habits, an explanation of why they are here, and suggestions of what can be done were addressed in presentations by Butfiloski and Kelly. Thomas Buckhannon, IOP Chief of Police, concluded the presentation by detailing the actions the city has taken to combat the coyotes thus far. The floor was then opened for approximately 45 minutes, as nearly 20 residents voiced their comments and concerns.
In summary, the experts informed the crowd that it is not unique to have coyotes in urban areas. They are native to North America, and present everywhere, from Central Park in Manhattan to Wrigley Field in Chicago, and beyond. The island’s coyotes are likely migrating from Mt. Pleasant, where their habitat is shrinking, as a result of the ongoing development.
Chief Buckhannon noted that although the coyotes have “probably been present on IOP for the past 18 months or so, there seems to be a recent uptick.” He attributes this to development off Rifle Range Road.
“There are two new developments, Oyster Bay and Magnolia Grove, in addition to land just cleared off of Jennie Moore [elementary school]. As Officer Butfiloski mentioned, coyotes are avid swimmers.” So, while he can’t prove direct cause, the Chief thinks there is a definite correlation between the coyote’s loss of habitat in adjacent Mt. Pleasant, and an increase of coyote sightings on Isle of Palms.
At the time of the forum, forty-one sightings had been reported to the IOP Police Department. Thirty-three sightings occurred north of 41st Street, with just one south of the IOP Connector.
“It seems unlikely they are coming from Sullivan’s,” Buckhannon said. It is expected that the number of reported sightings will increase as a result of the Forum, as citizens were asked to report sightings and incidents, to aid the police in tracking coyote movement.
What’s to be done, and when?
The audience was advised, to its dismay, that the coyotes are most likely here to stay.
“It is unrealistic to think you can keep them off the island,” Officer Butfilowski said. “It’s not like you are in the middle of the Atlantic.” The frustration felt by the audience was palpable.
“I was disappointed in the meeting,” Katy Leydic said. “I wanted information on how to get rid of the island coyotes, not how to live with them.”
Leydic’s sentiment was echoed, at times harshly, by nearly 20 residents who took to the floor once the panel had concluded its presentation.
Understandably, islanders who have lost pets are distressed. Unfortunately, anecdotal stories of coyote-carrying-cat sightings are not proof positive that the pet losses are a direct result of coyote aggression.
Nonetheless, Wills Way residents Michael and Anne Mahon are 100 percent sure that their beloved cat was beheaded by a coyote. And Gail Jordan, of Palm Boulevard, has no doubt that the frenzied barking and subsequent yowling she heard, in the vacant lot next to her home, were the sounds of a cat being mauled by coyotes. Several residents called Chief Buckhannon to task, questioning his “lack of direct evidence” statement regarding coyote kills, when clearly their pets had been viciously attacked by another animal. Overwhelmingly, islanders want something done, and want it done now.
“I don’t think the city can solve the problem unless citizens cooperate,” by following the guidelines presented by the experts, Councilmember Barb Bergwerf said in an interview after the meeting. “I think this problem is controllable, not solvable, “ she said.
Expert recommendations include both habitat and behavior modification. Residents need to make the island “uncomfortable” for the coyotes, removing habitat by cutting back overgrowth, and eliminating all potential food sources, such as unsecured garbage, pet food, birdseed and compost. Behavior modification techniques include hazing, defined as “using a variety of techniques to re-instill the natural fear” coyotes have of humans, explained Kelly, who then expounded upon the various strategies.
Unfair as it may seem, islanders are going to have to change their behavior, too. Dogs should be leashed; cats kept indoors, especially at night.
Pets (and, goes without saying, small children) should never be left unattended outdoors. As island life becomes uncomfortable for the coyotes, it does as well for the humans, having to accompany pets outdoors in the middle of the night, or in the rain, for example. Dealing with coyotes in suburban areas presents unique challenges.
Fragmented land ownership, differing opinions about control, and legal issues, such as discharging of firearms (illegal on Isle of Palms) all need to be addressed.
Slaughter is not sustainable. Killing coyotes does not work, because they will reproduce to fill the void of the missing coyotes, Butfiloski said. “We need to dispel the myth that we are going to get rid of them,” he continued, as the meeting, which had dwindled to a handful of residents, dispersed.