PLANT CITY — About four or five years ago, Dave Crum saw what he thought was a dog scurry by him and vanish into a pipe from an old phosphate mine off County Road 39. • The 75-year-old cattle rancher approached the pipe and looked inside. For the first time in nearly 50 years on his ranch, he was face to face with a coyote. • As he looked closer, several pairs of eyes stared back at him. • Crum was used to seeing all kinds of wildlife on his land, but not coyotes. He called a game warden, who had a simple solution: kill them. • "I talked him out of it," Crum said. "And I might have made a mistake." • Native to the Southwest and Great Plains, coyotes have gradually moved east for more than a century due partly to the killing of wolves. They made their way to the Panhandle in the 1960s and are now in every Florida county, said Martin Main, a University of Florida professor of wildlife ecology and conservation. • Although researchers do not know how many coyotes are in Florida, the population steadily increased from 1997 to 2004, Main said. Officials at Hillsborough County Animal Services say they seldom get complaints from suburban residents about coyotes. But many people who live in rural eastern Hillsborough have had encounters with the animals.
Crum has more creatures on his 1,000-acre property than he can track. Some are wild and others he bought over the years. Among the animals he shares his land with are cows, hogs, buzzards, dogs and a horse.
"Almost everything that's native to Florida, I've got here," he said.
Most animals that roam onto Crum's property are welcome, he said. Coyotes are an exception.
He bought two donkeys a couple of years ago to help keep coyotes off his property. Those donkeys mated, and now he has three.
Donkeys stomp on coyotes and can protect calves, which along with goats, sheep and poultry, can become prey, Main said.
Coyotes rarely attack people. But Crum surmises that they might be responsible for killing 16 turkeys that lasted only six months on his ranch. They also could be the reason he sees fewer rabbits and quail.
"I wouldn't classify them as an aggressive animal, but I don't like them here because they're bad on my game," Crum said. "They're uninvited guests."
About eight years ago, coyotes started emerging in Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Hernando and Manatee counties. They quickly began to decimate the fox population, said Lesley Fox, a Lithia resident and member of a regional nonkill fox hunting club.
Now, instead of chasing foxes off of private ranches, the club mainly goes after coyotes.
"They do severe damage to herds," Fox said. "They're not cute."
On a recent night, Fox and her 23-year-old daughter were horseback riding on a lighted ranch near Durant High School when they heard several coyotes gathering nearby.
"It was very eerie and weird," said Fox, who was riding inside a gated area. "They were packed up, and it sounded like being in a National Geographic TV show."
The noise coyotes make is described as a yelp, yip or high-pitched bark. A pack of two or three can sound like many more.
The animals have become a regular conversation topic for landowners who shop at FishHawk Feed, where a stuffed coyote killed by a customer overlooks the store. Chicken farmers seem especially concerned about coyotes, said store owner Mike Wally.
"They'll get into the chicken yards and just go through a whole flock quickly," Wally said.
Scholars say humans bear some responsibility for keeping their animals safe from coyotes, who are always hunting for easy prey.
"A coyote is just looking for a meal," Main said.
Although they pose some danger to small livestock and poultry, coyotes help balance the rodent population by killing raccoons, possums, rats and armadillos, Main said. They thrive on open landscapes brought about by the agriculture industry in Florida and across the country.
"They have to go someplace to live," he said. "It's an animal that is refusing to give up the fight easily in terms of survival."
Back on his Plant City ranch, Crum sees fewer coyotes since adding the donkeys. But they're still in the area. They "yip" near sundown.
Earlier this year, Crum saw a coyote standing by his cow pen. Just as he was about to reach for his rifle, a pup followed from behind. An animal lover at heart, Crum let both go.
Kevin Smetana can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2439.