Coyotes have returned to Florida and are here to stay. Which raises the question: How do people in the state's most densely populated county, Pinellas, coexist peacefully with wild coyote neighbors? Though experts say there are no known cases in Florida where coyotes have intentionally attacked humans, some people have been injured trying to separate their pets from coyotes looking for a meal. Sightings and concern are on the rise.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has created a new coyote task force to tackle those issues.
"We're in the infancy stage," said Breanne Strepina, an FWC wildlife biologist who is on the committee. "We are discussing all of the issues happening with coyotes, not just in urban areas but also rural."
Among the goals:
• Begin a two-year study to track sightings.
• Streamline educational efforts.
• Recruit and train trappers who may be needed to remove nuisance coyotes.
• Plan for dealing with aggressive coyotes.
The "Coyote Management Action Team" was started in part because of an increase in calls from Floridians concerned about coyotes, Strepina said.
In 2010, Pinellas residents reported more than 400 sightings or issues connected to coyotes, such as mutilated cats. Since Pinellas County Animal Services began a reporting system in mid 2009, residents have logged more than 600 sightings and 105 "critical sightings," deemed more dangerous because they involve the death of a pet or a coyote that is thought to be stalking people or domesticated animals, said Animal Services operation manager Greg Andrews.
Some of those sightings may be repeats and others may not actually be coyotes, he said. No one knows how many coyotes are in Pinellas County or in Florida.
A return to Florida
For years, state wildlife officials thought coyotes were introduced to Florida in the 1960s or 1970s. More recently, they learned that coyotes were here long before that. Fossil fragments show they lived in Florida as early as the late Pliocene Epoch, about 2 million years ago, according to a June 2007 white paper by the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
Coyotes disappeared from eastern North America about 12,000 years ago but began a resurgence as the population of red wolves declined. By the 1960s, they were back in the Southeast and began migrating down the Florida peninsula.
In 1983, reports showed coyotes in 18 Florida counties. Less than a decade later, they could be found in at least 48 of the state's 67 counties. Today, they are all over the state. In Pinellas, they've been spotted from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg.
Experts say coyotes are generally skittish creatures that try to steer clear of humans. But some county residents have reported coyotes stalking or approaching them as they walk their dogs. Others have seen coyotes loping along major roadways, seemingly without fear of cars. And several county residents have reported brazen coyotes snatching dogs or chasing people.
Strepina said that the vast majority of cases in which coyotes approach humans or try to grab a pet with a person nearby are cases where the animal has lost its fear because it has been fed by humans.
Andrews, who gives presentations on coyotes all over the county, said a woman in Largo told him she was feeding coyotes because "they looked thin."
But coyotes are adept scavengers, which is why they're able to survive in urban environments where garbage, rodents and small pets are plentiful.
"They've just learned that we're a heck of a good food source," Andrews said. "We have more sightings on garbage pickup days than any other days."
Andrews and other experts said residents should keep their pets indoors, or when they are outdoors, on a leash, as prescribed by county ordinance.
That rankled Warren Waldrow of Belleair Bluffs, who said he is sure his 10-year-old cat, Edith, fell victim to coyotes. Her carcass was discovered this year.
Waldrow likened the presence of coyotes in his neighborhood to "an invasion" and questioned what the response will be when a child is hurt, which he thinks is inevitable.
"Pretty soon I'm going to complain and they're going to tell me to keep my grandson inside," he said.
Andrews said he understands the fear some people have about coyotes. But consider this: 1,385 dog bites were reported in Pinellas County last year alone. No coyote bites were reported.
To kill or not to kill
Research has shown it's nearly impossible for man to kill off coyotes. One factor, according to a paper published by the Humane Society of the United States in March, is that new coyotes quickly move into a territory where other coyotes have been killed or removed.
Coyotes adapt to culling by breeding earlier, having larger litters or having more than one litter per year.
"The more pressure you put on these guys, the more they have a will to survive," Andrews said.
Relocation has also proven unsuccessful, Strepina said. Coyotes will travel great distances to get back to their territory, and their speed and craftiness make them difficult to catch.
Waldrow said a neighbor offered an interesting solution to keep the coyote population at bay: sterilization.
But Andrews said spreading an oral contraceptive in the area could be hazardous if children or pets came into contact with it.
The prevailing coyote policy in Pinellas County is that they're allowed to roam freely unless they pose a danger to people. Nuisance coyotes can be removed by licensed trappers, just like alligators. The resident pays the cost.
U.S. cities and states have been telling people who encounter coyotes to use "hazing" to reinstill a fear of humans. That means standing tall and yelling for it to go away, spraying the animal with a water hose or throwing something at it to scare it.
But local veterinarian Don Woodman says hazing can make coyotes more accustomed to human interaction without consequences.
His advice: "Unless a coyote is actually causing problems, leave it alone."