Experts say North Shore coyote population is growing
Coyotes like this one, photographed in the Skokie Lagoons earlier this year, is said to have recently attacked two small Glencoe dogs.|File photo
Updated: April 22, 2013 10:52AM
The 11-year animal control officer pulled her car over in Winnetka on her way home, because she saw coyotes not doing something that she’s never seen them not doing before.
They weren’t showing any fear of people.
“These two coyotes were just ambling along,” Katie Sweeney remembered of what she saw on a recent sunny Sunday along Winnetka Road, just west of Hibbard. “They were watching a dog walker heading toward a footpath, and were very interested in what she was doing.
“People were walking past, and (the coyotes) were completely unafraid and unmotivated to move away from the people,” the Glencoe animal control officer added.
She advised the dog walker not to head off down the North Branch Trail, where her dog might not be safe, and then watched the coyotes “just hang out” along the busy street for 20 minutes, until they calmly sashayed into the woods.
This is unusual behavior for urban coyotes, said Stan Gehrt, the coyote expert who splits his time between teaching and advising at Ohio State University and leading the Cook County Coyote Project.
“We see them being chased by dogs, even little dogs,” he said, because coyotes associate dogs with people, “and they have a fear of people. And that’s the way we want it to be.”
Gehrt said he’s well aware that some individual coyotes are now behaving like settled suburbanites, calmly enjoying the parks, golf courses and yards.
It’s well-known that wild coyotes can get used to people, but it seems like it’s happening more lately, especially in the northern suburbs.
Stories of brazen coyote appearances in back yards, on parkways and beaches are becoming more common, and off-leash dogs are being chased through golf courses.
“There are more reports from the North Shore, probably due to a larger (coyote) population there,” said Gehrt, whose project has electronically tracked coyotes since 2000.
“For us, roughly 5 percent of the animals go over to the ‘dark side,’” he said, referring to the emboldened behavior change that brings them closer to people.
“Even though the percent stays the same, the overall number continues to grow,” Gehrt said.
“The population is steadily increasing,” said Bob Masse, district wildlife biologist for the south half of the Chicago area. “Coyotes are getting more used to people, and finding a way to make a living here.”
The Illinois Department of Resources tries to keep track of the state coyote population by asking archery hunters to count their sightings.
Statewide, that came out to 40.95 sightings per 1,000 hours in 2010, and 32.54 in 2011, according to Bob Bluett, a DNR wildlife diversity biologist.
Those sightings are mostly in rural areas, however, and may be affected by the hunting (and trapping) activity itself. Bluett said 4,572 coyote pelts were reported taken in 2010 and 2011.
Coyotes aren’t hunted much in Cook County.
“The only predators are cars, and people like me,” said Steve Stronk, a Crete man who is called in, usually by governments, to trap and euthanize coyotes when they get too familiar with people.
That’s happening, he said, because “people are feeding them on purpose, and also not on purpose.
“They’re not here because they like us,” he said. “They’re here because we’re offering something they need.”
He and the other coyote experts say that the human feeding of coyotes ranges from people who actually attempt to feed the animals by hand, to those whose bird feeding attracts rabbits and other small animals that bring the coyotes into back yards.
In between are those who put out food for their dogs to eat outside, and others who put out food expressly for coyotes.
“People have good intentions. They don’t know better,” Bob Bluett said of coyote feeders. “But they’ve almost sentenced that coyote to death.”
In Glencoe and many other suburbs, emboldened coyotes are occasionally trapped and euthanized. In Illinois, as in most places, coyotes aren’t relocated. No one wants them, and they go back to where they’re comfortable, anyway.
But “If you just remove the animal, and don’t stop the feeding, you have not stopped the problem,” Gehrt said.
“That’s the big issue: [Someone is] feeding this coyote, and three blocks down, where they don’t know anybody’s feeding it, that’s where the issue’s at,” Stronk said.
“I get calls all the time that people see coyotes,” Glencoe’s Sweeney said. “The calls are starting to get more concentrated: They’ve come after me, they’ve chased me and my dog, they’re looking in the back door, they’re looking in the window, waiting for me to take the dog out.”
Gehrt and the state experts say that the bolder coyotes don’t attack dogs for food. Having lost their fear of people, their territorial instincts have been allowed to take over.
“When coyotes are killing a domestic dog ... it’s a matter of competition, territory,” Stronk said.
“They don’t look at it as Muffy the pet, they look at it as competition for food.”
Stronk said he dislikes removing coyotes, and first tries to get complainants to yell and throw things at the animals to keep them away.
Sweeney said dog-walkers should keep their dogs on a short, non-retractable leash. The retractables won’t hold your dog when he’s spooked by a coyote, she said.
And if bird feeders are attracting small mammals, before long, they will attract coyotes, too — especially if woods are nearby, she said.
Suburbanites might as well learn to live with coyotes, Gehrt said. There’s been only one report of a coyote killing a human being in modern American history, and as for bites, “there are usually three to five incidents a year across North America. They’re usually very minor, and almost all of the cases have been preceded by feeding” by the bitten person.
“It’s very difficult to control the coyote population,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ever really been controlled anywhere.”
In Los Angeles, after decades of urban coyote activity, “there’s a certain level of acceptance,” he said. “The level of anxiety and concern is much higher in the Midwest.”
As long as there are geese on the golf courses, there will probably be coyotes there, too, Masse said. As long as there are deer and rabbits in the forest preserves, coyotes will hunt them.
“They’re going to be here forever,” Stronk said.