KEYSTONE — About 60 residents concerned about the coyote problem in northwest Hillsborough met with state wildlife officials last week, and when an agency biologist asked how many had lost pets to coyotes, more than a dozen raised their hands.
Angeline Scotten, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told the crowd at the Keystone Park Community Center that they could protect their pets by keeping them inside at night, safeguard their livestock by adding electrified fences, and scare off the predators by making noise.
Jim Swain, however, thinks those efforts fall far short of solving the problem. Even though wildlife officials say trying to eradicate coyotes in a certain area is futile — they compensate by having a lot more pups, and other coyotes move into vacated territory — Swain wants to give it a try.
Swain, president of the Lake Keystone Property Owners Association, said he plans to seek permission from the Hillsborough County Commission to send hunters onto county lands to search out and kill the wolf cousins near their dens. He said they are apparently plentiful on land protected under the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program that stretches along Tarpon Springs Road. People traveling that road at night can hear them yipping and howling, he said.
Hunting them, he figures, would be easier and quicker than hiring professionals to trap and kill them, the method he had originally planned to float among the homeowner associations in the area.
Swain, who introduced Scotten and her colleagues at the community meeting, said the problem seemed to get out of hand early this year; more and more people were losing pets and livestock. A few weeks ago, he said, he lost his 13-year-old cat, Brother, to a coyote.
"This was an animal that sat on my lap every day for 13 years,'' he said. "It was devastating.''
Asking around, he found that five neighbors had lost animals that same night. He worries that coyotes running amok will make northwest Hillsborough an undesirable place to live, and property values will drop.
Scotten, who travels to 12 counties in west Florida to educate communities about wildlife that are frequent nuisances — mainly bears and coyotes — delivered a slide presentation to residents demonstrating the good and bad things about coyotes.
She said coyotes, which migrated to Florida in the last half century, help control the population of smaller predators, like raccoons. That was once the job of the red wolf, which roamed the state and is now decimated.
Scotten showed images of the stomach contents of coyotes, revealing mice, rats and cockroaches, among vegetables, cooked chicken, dog food, a McDonald's wrapper.
"If coyotes eat the mice, the rats, the roaches, maybe he's good to have around,'' she said.
As a picture of a coyote with its cute, fuzzy pup flashed on the screen, Scotten noted that the animals do add to the state's aesthetics, and it serves as a draw for ecotourists. "Scenes like this, when they are attending their pups, are really kind of endearing.''
On the bad side, coyotes destroy sea turtle eggs and shorebird nests, eat endangered species and, of course, will kill and eat cats, small dogs, chickens, lambs and other livestock. Scotten said, however, that they do not instinctively go after pets and livestock; that is learned behavior.
Learned or not, it's behavior Swain would like to stop, at least in northwest Hillsborough. He said they have to address the problem the way the state is managing the problem of pythons in the Everglades — go in and kill them.
At the meeting, Scotten expressed skepticism about any effort to eradicate them in a certain region. Other species, wolves, for example, have been decimated. But coyotes have an uncommon resilience, she noted.
"Ever since we colonized the United States, we've been shooting at them. Yet they are still alive and doing fine.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected]