- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

Jim Williams didn’t want anyone thinking he’d been into the grape, so he began his letter with the qualifying statement, “I am a lifetime hunter and fisherman, as well as overall wildlife enthusiast so I am very confident that I know what I observed.”

Williams, who lives within 75 yards of Rock Creek Park, said he recently awoke at about 2a.m. to a series of high-pitched canine yips and howls. “They were steady and uninterrupted for at least five minutes,” he said. “They reminded me exactly of the coyotes I listened to in northeastern Maine while on fishing trips a few years ago. Nonetheless, I discounted this idea because of my location, and I forgot about the incident.

“[Later] while at the intersection of Oregon Avenue, Nebraska Avenue and Bingham Road NW, I watched a large adult coyote come out of the Rock Creek woods and hunt about the open space there. The color, size, appearance of the animal, as my niece and I watched it for 3-4 minutes under the street lights, left no doubt as to its identity. The coyote slipped back into the woods after a 30-second stare-down with us.”

Williams added that he carried a duck call in his car and when he blew it, the coyote bounded within 15 yards of the automobile, sniffed and stared, then loped off into the direction of the nearby Rock Creek Garden Association.

“Until this time I was unaware of coyotes in D.C.,” Williams wrote.

Williams also said a Virginia game warden told him coyotes have been shot by deer hunters at the Quantico Marine Base, and he’s heard of coyote sightings along the nearby Potomac in Maryland.

Now add Matt Hancock, who resides in the western Charles County community of Nanjemoy. During a black powder deer hunt, Hancock saw a coyote and shot it. Mind you, this is Southern Maryland — an area pretty much surrounded by tidal water. What in the world was a coyote doing in Nanjemoy, and how did it get there? Not only that, you can bet your last dime that it wasn’t the only one that made its home there.

Bob Duncan, the Wildlife Division Director for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, agrees.

“It’s almost certain that this Charles County coyote didn’t live there all by himself,” he said, meaning, of course, that the chance of more coyotes making their home around Nanjemoy is practically assured.

“We’ve seen coyotes run through busy intersections in Hopewell, not far from Richmond. Coyotes are pretty much established all over the state,” said Duncan, a 27-year veteran of the VDGIF.

Duncan killed a coyote in Goochland County during last year’s deer season and recounts a story of a Virginia coyote going after a man who was mowing his lawn. The homeowner managed to elude the coyote, go inside to get a gun, then came back and killed it. The animal later was found to have rabies.

If you think such accounts and sightings are rare, consider the fact that, according to Duncan, roughly 8,000 coyotes are shot every year by Virginia hunters. That’s not counting coyotes killed by automobiles or by homeowners who don’t bother to report killings, fearful perhaps that they might have shot a pet dog and are afraid to report it. The animal, after all, doesn’t look all that much different than a scruffy, small German shepherd.

Because of the coyotes’ rapid proliferation, it is legal to shoot them year-round, lure them with electronic calling devices, and simply get rid of them because of the rabies threat and the ease with which they adapt to human surroundings, thus immediately posing a danger to small pet dogs, cats and whatever else is left unattended in a backyard or on a neighborhood street. These brazen, highly intelligent animals wouldn’t think twice about snacking on Fifi, the poodle, or Fluffy, the housecat.

In a special report concerning coyotes, Robert Colona, the Furbearer Project Leader of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, wrote, “Coyotes were historically a western species with core populations found west of the Mississippi River. Alterations and/or elimination of competing predators during the post-European colonization period facilitated rapid range expansion into eastern North America during the 20th century. Established populations now occur in every state and province in North America.

“Coyotes are a relatively new addition to local ecosystems and were first documented in Maryland during 1972. Initial sightings occurred in Cecil, Frederick and Washington counties. Since that time, population densities and occupied range have expanded incrementally, and coyotes now occur statewide. Current trends appear to display a declining distribution gradient when proceeding in a west to east direction across the state. Highest densities are witnessed in western Maryland, and the lowest occur on the Eastern Shore.”

Colona agrees that coyotes possess typical canine features resembling those of a small German shepherd.

“They have large erect ears, an elongated sharp muzzle and a long bushy tail,” he said. “Overall pelt coloration tends to be brown or buff interspersed with mottled gray or black. The chin, throat, chest and stomach are usually a lighter shade of brown or cream. Average adult weights range from approximately 30 to 40 pounds, with some individuals approaching 60 pounds.”

When heavier weights are discussed, other wildlife biologists weigh in quickly with suggestions that in the southeastern United States, coyotes that appear to be larger than normal might be red wolf hybrids. Northeastern U.S. and Canadian coyotes are thought to possess a good deal of grey wolf blood, although some scientists insist that what used to be thought of as mixed blood coyotes actually might be rare Algonquin wolves, an eastern species.

Either way, thousands of coyotes are in eastern Canada, including New Brunswick, which borders on Maine, and … well, follow the dots. Maine now also has a bunch of the wily critters.

In our Middle Atlantic states, it is not precisely known how many coyotes roam the countryside, suburbs and even cities. Colona said recent analysis in Virginia has verified an approximate 29 percent annual growth rate in its coyote population.

Maryland and Virginia share similar habitat types and land use patterns. Duncan’s figure of 8,000 being shot in one year by Virginia hunters alone would suggest a far greater number than was imagined. Maryland’s coyote population should display similar population trends.

The bad news includes the fact that coyotes can reach sexual maturity at age 1 and will remain fertile practically all their lives. Imagine your pooch at home breeding nearly every year, dropping litters of four to eight pups.

Do the math and remember: Just because you haven’t seen coyotes doesn’t mean they’re not here.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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