- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Manassas resident Kristi J.K. Robinson bikes or walks through the 60,200-acre Marine Corps Base Quantico monthly and sometimes weekly, looking for coyote tracks and scat. The graduate student has seen just one coyote during 410 hours of fieldwork over four years.

“In this region, they’re still pretty secretive compared to in other regions,” says Mrs. Robinson, a graduate student in environmental science and public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax.

Mrs. Robinson and doctoral candidate Christine Bozarth are conducting federally funded, noninvasive research on the mammals, which are most active at dawn, dusk and night. The students plan to identify the distribution and abundance of coyotes, along with the long-established gray fox and red fox, on the Quantico, Va., Marine base 36 miles south of the District. Coyotes, which are native to the Western plains, were first sighted at the base in 1997.

“It’s exciting because it’s a new species that’s come into the area. There’s not much known about it,” says Larry Rockwood, associate professor of environmental science and public policy.

Mr. Rockwood, who holds a doctorate in biology, is adviser to the project.

Coyotes were first encountered in the 1800s as European settlers began moving westward from the Eastern Seaboard.

“Just as they had little tolerance for large carnivores on the Eastern Seaboard, they had little tolerance for coyotes,” says Camilla Fox, director of wildlife programs at the Animal Protection Institute, a national advocacy organization based in Sacramento, Calif.

The federal government funded eradication programs and passed laws supporting the removal of large carnivores from the West to protect livestock and agricultural interests, Ms. Fox says. By the mid-20th century, wolves, bears and cougars had been eliminated from most of their range in the continental United States, she says.

The elimination allowed the coyote, a species preyed upon by wolves, to expand its population. Coyotes, unlike wolves, could adapt to urban development, eating a variety of foods, including human garbage and pet food along with small animals (anything from rodents to feral cats and small livestock), vegetation and insects. In the mid-20th century, the federal government began a lethal predator-control program targeting the coyote.

“It’s not an overstatement to say that those efforts failed miserably,” says Susan Hagood, wildlife issues specialist with the Gaithersburg operations center of the Humane Society of the United States. The organization’s headquarters are in Northwest Washington.

“The [coyote] is one of the most adaptable animals that exists on the continent. They eat almost anything. They’re good at concealing themselves. They’re good at reproduction.”

Coyotes expanded into the Great Lakes states in the 1930s and into New England a decade later. In the Southeastern states, coyotes were released as captive animals for hunting purposes and, as a result, expanded their range there.

An estimated 3 million coyotes live in the United States and Canada, says David Kidd, founder and executive director of Coyote Action Inc., an educational Web site (www.growingamerica.net/coyote) based in Canton, Ohio, that provides pro- and anti-coyote information.

“They’re very territorial,” Mr. Kidd says. “They are moving to have their own territory.”

In the 1980s, the mid-Atlantic states of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware and the city of Washington were the last continental areas to be populated by coyotes, Mrs. Robinson states in the abstract of her master’s thesis, “Scat Identification and Dietary Trends of Coyote, Gray Fox and Red Fox in a Mid-Atlantic Ecosystem,” still in draft form.

Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Bozarth are studying how coyotes on the Marine base are partitioning food sources with foxes and the prey they are selecting.

Mrs. Robinson surveyed 460 miles of transect, or organized paths, to collect the scat, noting where and when she made the collections and the field conditions. Larger animals use roads, trails and streams to deposit scat and mark their territory, she says.

Mrs. Bozarth, a third-year doctoral student in environmental science and public policy, is analyzing the scat samples collected from March 2001 to January 2005 to identify the type of animal that left it — coyote, fox or domestic dog. She is extracting DNA out of cells that come from the animals’ digestive systems and are found in scat.

“I use a chemical process to get rid of everything in the sample except the DNA,” says Mrs. Bozarth, who started her research about 1 years ago.

The scat analyses show the coyote and foxes to be opportunistic omnivores and the gray fox to be the most vegetarian of the three. Coyotes consume primarily vegetation and insects in the fall, when they are abundant in the region, Mrs. Robinson states in the abstract. During the other seasons, coyotes consume primarily small mammals, with less vegetation and fewer insects, she says. The amount of deer meat they consume is small and shows up in scat only during hunting season, she says.

“People grossly overestimate them. They’re just not that big,” Mrs. Robinson says about coyotes, which weigh 35 to 40 pounds in the Eastern states and look like German shepherds or small huskies. “That’s why the fear that they are taking down deer is unfounded.”

Coyotes only hunt deer in packs if they are living in conditions with several months of large snowdrifts, mostly in the far north, Mrs. Robinson says. Otherwise, coyotes have a flexible social organization and are able to live singly, in pairs or in packs of up to eight animals, she says.

In many states, including Virginia, the coyote is considered to be a nuisance species.

“We see coyotes as a nonnative species that has found its way into Virginia,” says Robert Ellis, assistant director in the wildlife division of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in Richmond, which allows year-round open season on coyotes in areas where hunting and trapping are permitted.

“We are concerned about nonnative species taking and replacing native species,” Mr. Ellis says.

Marine base staff members plan to incorporate the data Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Bozarth gather into their natural resources management plan. The base is required to monitor species living on the base and to maintain the base’s native species, including white-tailed deer and otters. The base is monitoring the arrival of the coyote, a new predator, and its impact on the base’s overall ecosystem.

“In our other indexes, we have not seen real noticeable declines in other species, but we’re continuing to keep our eyes open,” says Robert Timothy Stamps, head of the fish, wildlife and agronomy section of the Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Branch at Marine Corps Base Quantico.

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