The coyote liked to impress the girls by juggling his eyeballs. But one day, he tossed one of them so high that it got stuck in the night sky.
The legend comes from the Lummi Nation, and the Coyotes’ Eyeball is more commonly known as Arcturus, one of the brightest stars of the sky. As the winter frost begins to melt, Arcturus will become increasingly visible, and with it, the coyotes of the north Cascades.
In western Washington, and overall in the U.S., coyotes are becoming an increasingly pervasive species. In WhatcomCounty, coyotes have persisted in the dense forests, beaches, and farmland, but are more recently being seen in urbanized areas.
Matt Cleland, a plant and animal supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the department’s urban coyote program has “skyrocketed in the last couple of years.” Cleland helps manage wildlife issues and conflicts in the state.
Despite their increasing presence and proximity to humans, there is very little data about the actual size of the coyote populations in the state and in the county, primarily because of their elusive behavior.
However, a report provided by Cleland on coyote related service calls in the state shows a significant increase in calls to the department in the years of 2005 to 2012. From 2005 to 2009 the number of calls varied between 56 and 102. In 2010, the number of calls nearly doubled from 56, in 2009, to 106. By 2011, the number increased to 158. As 2012 comes to an end, the number of calls stands at 175.
In WhatcomCounty, the service calls over the eight-year period only reached seven, in contrast with KingCounty’s 195 calls. Whatcom County’s service calls only increased by four in 2012, but were only at one – or none—in previous years.
This gradual increase in coyotes has been in the works since the fall of the state’s gray wolf population in the early 20th century. WesternWashingtonUniversity wildlife science professor, John McLaughlin, said the elimination of gray wolf’s have given the coyotes significant room to expand their territory.
“If we ever have a nuclear holocaust, there would be two things left: the cockroaches, and the coyotes,” said Matt Stevens, a biologist for the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They’re very adaptable.”
In most cases, human expansion has improved coyote growth. Throughout the state, coyotes rely on residential areas for food sources, said Stevens. Urbanization of what was once wilderness has caused the species to go through a sort of “mini-evolution,” he said.
“When a coyote sees city lights, they come towards it, not away,” he said. “They roam the city streets at night as readily as raccoon or a possum.”
McLaughlin and Stevens both said coyotes are notorious for going after house cats or luring small dogs into traps. McLaughlin said that house cats are sometimes about 50% of urban coyote diets. Garbage and dead animal carcasses are other delicacies.
McLaughlin said that coyotes in the northern Cascades are nearly at the top of the ecological pyramid. In some cases they act as a bottom feeder, eating the remains of dead things and local flora. In other cases, they act as a primary consumer, hunting down a fresh kill with their pack, or by themselves. The species also provides “important ecosystem functions”, such as controlling rodent populations and dispersing seeds through bowel movements, said McLaughlin.
Though they aren’t very big or particularly threatening, they have little competition with other carnivorous animals –except for the limited number of cougars in the county.
Unlike cougars, coyotes aren’t solitary hunters. McLaughlin said their social structure is very similar to that of wolves. Their packs, which usually comprise about six members, are structured on an “alpha-pair”, or mother and father, who will sometimes stay mates for life.
Breeding season for coyotes is typically in late winter and early spring. Pups are born about two months later, and are reared by their mother in dens until about six months of age. At about this time, pups are trained by their mothers on how to hunt for themselves. As the winter months begin to pick up, the most of the new hunters will often go their separate ways in search of their own home ranges and breeding opportunities, while others will stay with the original pack. In the wild, few coyotes live more than four years, and many coyotes die before they reach their first year.
Alysha Elsby, director of the NorthwestWildlifeRehabilitationCenter, has firsthand experience with the species. The center specializes in rehabilitating sick, injured, and orphaned animals native to the area and releasing them back into the wild.
Elsby said they try to keep the wildlife wild. No pet-like affection is given to the animals, she said.
Most of the incidents involving coyotes are due to human conflicts. Elsby said the coyotes they take in are often shot by hunters, hit by cars, or have things stuck on their heads, like jars or PVC pipes.
“They’re usually in pretty rough shape by the time they’re caught,” she said.
The centers’ last coyote incident was in July, where an orphaned pup was found on a roadside next to his mother who had been killed by a vehicle.
In most cases, the coyotes are sedated, and then brought back to the center where they are put in a kennel with others, said Elsby. The new pack is raised together and released back into the wild after recovery. Because they rely on pack mentality, she assumes the animals stick together once they are released.
“Around these areas, they’re getting more and more used to people,” she said. Though the animals are naturally skittish and timid, she said coyotes in urbanized areas are becoming more “friendly” with people.
This poses a couple of problems: canine distemper, a disease often carried by coyotes is easily transmitted to pet dogs (though most dogs are vaccinated). Also, coyote attacks on humans, however few, are usually due to humans purposely, or inadvertently, feeding them.
Elsby believes the coyote population in the county has remained pretty static, but that they are becoming bolder in urban areas. She said the center gets a lot of calls about coyotes from SuddenValley.
Bellingham’s southerly neighborhoods provide the coyotes with an abundance of food, as well as a dense forest to retreat to. The area also provides the species with large populations of deer and rabbits to hunt. Many other incidents in south Bellingham involving coyotes are logged on the state’s department of fish and wildlife website as well.
This time of year, as the young coyotes disperse through the various parts of the county, it’s becoming more likely that Bellingham residents will run into them on the trails, or in their backyard.
“We eliminated wolves and cougars. Never coyotes,” said McLaughlin. “If you’re in their habitat, you have to learn to live with them.”
For information on wildlife safety or how to properly deal with coyotes, visit the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website. Complaints about dangerous wildlife should be reported to the department’s enforcement hotline at (877) 933-9847.