TAMPA — If coyotes were into real estate, Tampa International Airport would probably take top dollar among the hairy, howling mammal type.
It has everything.
Rabbits. Snakes. Water to drink. Woods for shelter.
Then there's the added bonus: nearby land seasoned with scrumptious trash left by Raymond James Stadium tailgaters.
"We feel that is what introduced them to the airport," said Kenneth Johnson, assistant director of operations for TIA.
In the past 21/2 years, federal wildlife officials have removed eight coyotes from the runways and woods surrounding the airport, a spokesman said. Ten were trapped and euthanized in 2006. Twelve were caught and killed in 2001.
It's an issue airport officials deal with periodically as the state's growing coyote population searches for areas hospitable to the omnivores.
"You're never going to get rid of them," Johnson said.
Not that they don't try.
Along with birds, coyotes present a safety challenge to aircraft as they taxi, take off or land. According to the Federal Aviation Administration's National Wildlife Strike database, 297 coyotes have collided with aircraft since 1990, damaging landing gear on more than a few planes.
Seven of those have been in Florida. And one of them was at TIA in 2000.
Johnson said he found the coyote halved on the runway, killed by a Southwest flight as it took off. No one was hurt in that incident.
The most recent coyote sighting at TIA was recorded on Sept. 13 at 8 p.m., when a pilot saw something at the intersection of two runways, called it in to air traffic control, who called it in to Rupen Philloura, the assistant director of operations on duty that night.
By the time Philloura arrived to check it out, the creature had vanished.
TIA contracts with the U.S. Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Florida to monitor the animals, setting traps where it finds scat and tracks.
Anthony Duffiney, assistant state director for the agency, said the calls for assistance have risen in recent years.
The agency removes about 75 to 100 coyotes a year because of livestock threats or airport concerns, according to a 2007 study by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission.
Duffiney didn't doubt Johnson's speculation that tailgaters might be upping the standard of living for roaming coyotes.
"I think any time you've got a large group of people, you're going to have trash, and when that trash is close to the airport, there's the possibility that it will attract coyotes," Duffiney said.
It's not a distinction the Tampa Sports Authority or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are ready to claim.
"This is the first I've heard of it," said Jeff Kamis, a Bucs spokesman, on Wednesday.
The team leases a tract of TIA-owned property on the eastern edge of the airfield and uses it for fan parking and tailgating. This includes Lots 11, 12 and 13. Kamis said the Bucs contracts with an outside firm to manage and clean the lots.
Johnson said this is the area where experts have found signs of coyotes.
Barbara Casey, a Sports Authority spokeswoman, said there are no coyotes on the land her organization uses for parking just around the stadium — the parking areas east of N Dale Mabry Highway. Cleanup crews begin aggressively cleaning before all the fans leave, she said. "It's not like rib bones are lying everywhere," she said.
Experts say coyotes appear singly, in pairs or in family groups and typically roam in areas of 10 square miles. They've grown in population in Florida. While they inhabited 18 counties in 1983, they live in all 67 counties today. They are most active at dawn and dusk. And while they do pose a threat to cats — feral and household — attacks on humans are rare.
For now, TIA is working on shoring up the 6-foot fence surrounding the airfield, ensuring any animal-sized gaps are mended.
If that doesn't work, maybe a "Not Welcome Here" sign will.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.