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The howl over coyotes

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

A coyote’s howl woke Linda and Larry Ketron of North Litchfield at 2 o’clock one morning this week.

“That usually means they’ve caught something,” she said. The Ketrons have lost seven cats to coyotes, so the nocturnal howl could have meant they had lost another pet or a coyote had killed its preferred prey: a mouse, mole, chipmunk or squirrel. The Ketrons live along the border of Huntington Beach State Park, ideal habitat for coyotes.

“My husband has seen them walking down the center of Lakeshore Drive at 10 in the morning, just sauntering not in a hurry,” Ketron said. “They don’t feel any threat from anybody.” She has discovered the coyote may be nature’s most cunning predator. “If they get a catch, it’s like petty theft where someone steals your TV and gives you time to replace it before he comes around again,” she said. “It feels like more than petty theft to us. We are very attached to these animals.”

The whole North Litchfield community is on edge after a resident’s young daughter and small dog were approached by a coyote recently. “It is very frightening for everybody,” Ketron said.

She did some research and learned that feeding animals outside can attract coyotes. There’s no way around it. The Ketrons’ cats are feral. Jay Butfiloski, a biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, told a group of landowners gathered in Andrews Tuesday for a coyote trapping seminar they could be providing a kill zone for coyotes when they put out corn when baiting for deer.

“Coyotes are arguably the smartest animal in the woods, even smarter than some of the hunters that are out there,” said Ben Powell, a natural resources agent with Clemson Extension who organized the trapping seminar.

Butfiloski said coyotes first arrived in northwestern South Carolina in 1978. He suspects fox hunters brought them to the state as sporting prey “probably because they are a better fox, heartier, faster, more durable,” he said. Eventually, the coyote would have come here anyway, Butfiloski said. They have spread from the West to every state except Hawaii.

The coyote has replaced the red wolf as the state’s dominant predator. “We killed the wolf’s food and cleared land,” Butfiloski said. “If they ate the things coyotes eat, we’d probably still have them. What’s made the coyote so successful is that they will eat anything. The red wolf was much more specialized: deer and large mammals. Every now and then, coyotes will hit a watermelon patch hard. When you are able to eat anything, you tend to be a lot more successful.”

Lee Ballard of Salters, who attended Tuesday’s trapping seminar, said he had seen a coyote eating apples off a tree. Butfiloski said they will eat vegetables and road kill, including armadillos, but they’ve become Public Enemy No. 1 in this state for killing livestock, pets and fawns. Deer hunters kill an estimated 30,000 coyotes a year, and trappers take another 2,500. It barely makes a dent in the population.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” he said. “She will find a way to fill that void.” He advised trappers to time their efforts at removing coyotes based on the deer season. Fawns are vulnerable for their first eight weeks of life. If they can survive that long, they are able to elude a coyote. Butfiloski advised trapping and killing coyotes in the spring after their annual breeding season and before they have pups. A female will raise her young over the summer and push them out on their own — it’s called dispersal — in the fall. “If we kill right before dispersal,” Butfiloski said, “nature will put them right back. Do it after breeding and it’s more effective. Nature will fill them back in. You can count on that. They are coming back, but if you get rid of them during the brief window when fawns are particularly susceptible you can save deer.”

Coyotes are not classified as a game animal by the state, Butfiloski said. Hunters can use a variety of methods to catch and kill them that are illegal for other species. Electronic calls, night hunting and spotlighting are legal at any time of the year for people with a state hunting license who haven’t been convicted of illegal night or road hunting within five years. Unlike some western states, South Carolina does not allow poisons to kill coyotes. There are spring-loaded cartridges of sodium cyanide powder called M-44’s on the market. “They are so dangerous,” Butfiloski said, “the guy setting them has to carry an antidote so he doesn’t kill himself.” The baited hook is another illegal means being used. “Honestly,” Butfiloski said, “I don’t care how bad you hate a coyote there’s really no reason to string an animal up for three or four days on a treble hook and wait for it to die. You could have dogs, kids running through the woods who could get hung on these things. There are other ways to deal with it.”

A coyote, like any dog, can be fenced out of a yard or small livestock operation, Butfiloski said. He said a goat rancher in the Upstate has two Great Pyrenees dogs guarding his pasture. “They absolutely keep things out of that patch,” he said. “They don’t even like new goats being put in. They have an inbred dislike of dogs and coyotes. You see the same thing with donkeys, llamas and alpacas as far as keeping them out of pastures.”

He advised farmers to remove brush piles that attract small mammals, creating a sterile looking landscape. “There’s no attraction for coyotes to be there,” he said. “Keeping things clean keeps them away.” He also said that farmers should bury dead animals because coyotes will feed on the carcasses and begin killing livestock.

The coyote is wily and adaptable to urban settings. “They can go for miles on a railroad track,” Butfiloski said. Joggers with dogs reported coyotes in a Mount Pleasant park. The Murraywood subdivision near Irmo has posted signs that coyotes are killing neighborhood cats. There’s an Internet item showing a coyote on a subway in Chicago and on top of an abandoned building in New York.

Trapping has proven the best method for reducing their numbers, Butfiloski said. Legal traps are more humane than in years past. Smooth edges of the trap’s jaws clamp an animal’s leg and hold it by secured chain. Traps designed for raccoons and foxes can be defeated by coyotes. They can pull a stake out of the ground because they tend to jump. “One thing we don’t need is an animal running around with a trap on its foot,” Butfiloski said. “That makes the whole trapping community look bad, and you don’t want an educated coyote running off with a trap.”

Another reason for a humane trap is that the animal is less likely to fight it. “It’s not pleasant to be caught,” Butfiloski said, “but it’s better if it’s not physically hurting the animals.” An animal in pain will chew its own foot off to escape. Traps are not designed to break bones. If a trapper accidentally catches a neighbor’s dog or a wild animal out of season, he can release it unharmed by using a catch pole.

The law requires a daily check of traps to remove animals, Butfiloski said. And it is illegal to remove a lawfully trapped animal from someone else’s trap.

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