With the score currently at 234 sheep, 120 goats, 35 calves and a near miss on a guy on a riding lawn mower, it would seem that the coyotes are winning.
At least that’s the fear of the Virginia Cooperative Coyote Damage Control program, whose score was 394 coyotes in 2002, a near draw.
But the joint state-federal effort is facing a 20 percent budget cut while the coyote populations are increasing in Virginia and Maryland, killing livestock and getting ever closer to metropolitan areas.
The program is “underfunded as it is, even before the budget cuts,” said Chad J. Fox, who oversees the Virginia project for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The farmer’s going to get hit in the chin,” he said. “It could put several farmers out of the business of raising sheep and goats.”
Coyotes usually are not aggressive toward humans, unless they are infected with rabies or if a mother feels that her cubs are threatened. Coyote aggression toward humans is rare, but it “can happen,” Mr. Fox said.
In Virginia on Jan. 26, a New Kent County man blowing leaves on a riding lawn mower was attacked by a rabid coyote weighing an estimated 50 pounds, heavier than the normal 20 to 40 pounds. After kicking it away several times, the man went to get a handgun. He missed, so he got a 12-gauge shotgun and killed the coyote, which had pursued him to his front porch, according to Julia Dixon Smith of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
It was the first attack on a human by a rabid coyote in Virginia recorded by the department, according to Ms. Smith.
The man, Jimmy Hawthorne, “showed great presence of mind,” Ms. Smith said, explaining that he had shot the coyote in the torso instead of its head in order to preserve brain tissue for a rabies test which was positive.
Coyotes subsist on small mammals, birds, large insects and carrion. They also prey on unprotected sheep and occasionally on weakened deer. They typically hunt at night, sometimes in packs, but they are also active at dusk and dawn. Their life span in the wild is about seven years.
Most of Virginia’s roughly 20,000 coyotes are in the western counties, but in the last several years they have been recorded in every county in the state, Mr. Fox said.
The same is true for Maryland, according to Paul Peditto, director of the wildlife program for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.
Maryland does not have a coyote-control program, he said, because the animal population is not as high as Virginia’s. Also, livestock farmers in Maryland have not reported many instances of coyotes attacking their animals, Mr. Peditto said.
Still, a few years ago, coyotes were recorded in every Maryland county for the first time. As in Virginia, the number of coyotes is greatest in the western portion of the state.
As coyotes continue to proliferate, they are moving east, Mr. Fox said.
“The farther eastern counties can expect to have more coyotes in the future,” he said. Increasing deforestation and the removal of natural enemies, notably wolves, have helped coyote populations expand.
The predominantly gray carnivores killed 234 sheep, 120 goats and 35 calves in Virginia during the 2002 fiscal year. There were 187 sheep killed during the 2001 fiscal year. The highest number of sheep killed by coyotes, 448, was in fiscal 1999.
Wildlife services use snares, traps, cyanide ejectors and guns to kill coyotes, according to the coyote-control program’s 2002 report. The program claims to have reduced the number of sheep killed per farm to two for the last two years.
Statistics show that despite the efforts of wildlife services on farms where problems are reported, the number of coyotes in Virginia is steadily growing.
Virginia’s coyote-control program killed 394 coyotes during 2002 at the request of farmers whose animals were being attacked. That is the highest number of coyotes ever “removed” in Virginia, up from 231 in 2001, and up from 19 in 1993.
Virginia hunters killed more than 6,000 coyotes during the 1998-99 hunting season.
Meanwhile, the budget for the coyote-control program has been cut for the 2003 fiscal year from $228,000 to $177,500. The cuts will most severely affect services in Southwest Virginia and the New River Valley.
But the number of farms reporting problems with coyotes is increasing, according to the coyote-control report.
“If you’re a livestock farmer and have lost cattle or sheep, it’s something that can really hurt your pocketbook, and it’s a battle they constantly have to put up with,” Mr. Fox said.
The report predicts that the number of farms requesting help from the coyote-control program will continue to rise during the next few years, but the program is “going to be more limited as to how much service we can provide to help them reduce predation,” Mr. Fox said.
“I’m very concerned for the farmer,” he said.