By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
Three years ago coyotes started making their presence known on Sullivan’s Island. They were generally spotted at dusk roaming streets, or before dawn prowling through backyards. At first, interaction was minimal, other than a noticeable depletion of the local rat population and no more road kill. At the time, according to Isle of Palms City Administrator Linda Tucker, there were little to no reported sightings of the creature on the neighboring island.
Today, while sightings on Sullivan’s have stabilized and become cyclical – peaking during the canine’s mating and denning season, December through February, and petering off during the summer – on Isle of Palms it’s a different story. There the creatures are being spotted at a rate that is alarming many residents, additionally they appear to be far more brazen, running through the streets in broad daylight.
“It used to be you’d see one every once and a while late at night, now they’re everywhere,” said Isle of Palms’ resident Karen Ward Linker.
She started seeing them about eight months ago, in the summer. “It’s become very consistent. A group of my neighbors are on a group text, about 15 of us, we get texts about 5 times a week.”
Residents on both islands are sounding the alarm, fearful for the safety of their pets and in some cases their children and themselves. To date there have been no attacks on humans on either island, and no confirmed attacks on pets, although many residents who have lost cats, and in one case a puppy on Sullivan’s Island, are sure that coyotes are the cause.
Ward Linker believes her cat was eaten by a coyote and says she’s lost count of the number of missing cat posters she’s seen on Isle of Palms. She is frustrated at what she sees as a lack of action by local authorities.
Mike Maughon attended the January meeting of Isle of Palms City Council meeting to air his concerns and berate the city for not doing more to educate residents about the dangers of the creatures.
There is a co-existing with coyotes flyer on the city’s website (www.iop.net/Data/Sites/1/media/news/co-existing-with-coyotes-2015.pdf), but to date that is the extent of the city’s public education on the matter. However, at the same meeting, Mayor Cronin directed Administrator Tucker to put together a public forum on the issue to hear from experts and residents.
On Sullivan’s Island, where the canines are more established, a management plan has been put in place. The plan, which can be viewed on the town’s website (sullivansisland-sc.com/Files/WILDLIFE/Coyote%20Management%20Plan-2%28final%29.pdf), was approved in Dec. 2014 and allows lethal control when the interaction between “persons and coyotes escalates to the level of an incident or attack.” Last year the town put out two box traps but was not successful in trapping any animals.
At its January workshop council discussed escalating to soft leg traps following the alleged death of a puppy at the hands of a coyote. Almost half the council were opposed or concerned about the use of leg traps.
“If you put these leg traps out you don’t know what you’re going to catch, imagine if a child got caught in one,” Councilmember Sarah Church said. “This is our third year with coyotes, seasonally the sightings decline in March. I wonder if we’re just jumping the gun here to feel like there’s some movement because of this puppy.”
She went on to point out that dogs, deer, and even raptors such as eagles have been known to get caught in these soft leg traps, often requiring to be euthanized due to the injuries sustained by the trap.
However, the town’s current plan allows the move to soft leg traps if deemed necessary by the police chief, and does not require a vote of council.
To prevent the move to leg traps council would have to vote to rescind or modify the current plan, according to Town Administrator Andy Benke. When a coyote is trapped it must be killed on site.
It is against state law to transport a live coyote and as they are deemed nuisance animals they cannot be relocated. While trapping and killing coyotes gives the impression of taking action, the conundrum both municipalities are facing is that science tells them trapping is not the best policy. SCDNR has advised Sullivan’s town council that you can never completely eliminate the coyote, and that by culling them you may actually increase their numbers in the long run.
A representative from SCDNR spoke to the town last year explaining that when left alone coyotes self-manage their population, establishing a hierarchy and a population large enough only to be supported by the local food supply. When that population is significantly disturbed breeding escalates resulting in more coyotes than the standard food supply can support, which in turn can lead to coyotes searching for more dangerous food sources – such as domestic animals in people’s back yards.
However, in suburban areas of Southern California, where coyote attacks are escalating, killing particularly aggressive problem animals has been shown to modify the behavior of the local population – making it regain its fear of humans, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We’ve used box traps to zero effect so soft leg trap is next. We are ready to put out traps and take some coyotes. We don’t believe it will have an overall impact on the population however,” Andy Benke said. “Eventually those coyotes will come back.”
Whatever solution to the coyote conundrum the island governments are able to come up with, in the interim many residents are taking matters into their own hands. Sullivan’s Island reports numerous locals have employed private trapping firms and have successfully disposed of problem animals. On Isle of Palms, Ward Linker is starting a letter writing campaign to urge her city to do something about the creatures, but she is also fortifying her backyard.
“The thing that’s so frustrating is you call the police and they say you need to coexist this is their natural habitat – but they’re predators!” she said. “I know of two dogs that have been killed in Wild Dunes in the last two years and one last week on Forest Trail.” She is currently spending several thousand dollars to raise the height of her fence to the 6 feet recommended to keep the coyotes out.
For tips on how to protect your pets from coyotes and what to do if you see one click here.