Fatal Attack: How Dangerous are Coyotes?

By Beacon Staff

BOZEMAN – The fatal mauling of a young Canadian woman by coyotes in Nova Scotia this week has surprised wildlife lovers across North America.

While biologists say such attacks are extremely rare, the incident points to another phenomenon: the recent, rapid proliferation of the dog-like predators in cities as well as expanses of wilderness.

“Coyotes have become the most abundant large predatory animal on the continent,” says Ralph Maughan, who operates a popular wildlife blog that tracks human-wildlife encounters.

“Incidents like this are uncommon but bound to happen, when you consider there are millions of coyotes, some of them living in the middle of populated areas,” he adds. “It isn’t, however, reason for alarm.”

Until the end of the 19th century, taxonomists classified coyotes largely as creatures of the US and Canadian West. However, the near-elimination of their natural mortal enemy, the wolf, and the species’ incredible ability to adapt to changing environments led them to find new niches in the middle of sprawling civilization.

Today, their range extends from the boreal forests of the north to the deserts of Mexico, from downtown Los Angeles to golf courses and parks inside New York City.

Scrutiny of the attack in Canada is heightened because it occurred in a popular nature preserve and involved a woman who was hiking alone.

Taylor Mitchell, a 19-year-old professional folk singer from Toronto, was walking the Skyline Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park Tuesday when two coyotes attacked. She died the next day.

One prominent Canadian biologist, Valerius Geist, has asserted again this week that humans being more tolerant of wild animals in areas frequented by people is a mistake. He says it is only allowing predatory species to become more emboldened and, in some instances, view humans as possible prey.

Mr. Geist has his share of scientific critics. Jon Way, who has been studying 50 coyotes on Cape Cod in Massachusetts including animals living in the middle of dense human neighborhoods, says the concern is overblown.

“Coyotes are living amongst us in areas where we live and sleep and children play in our backyards,” he says. “There is a general avoidance that goes on between them and humans.”

Robert Crabtree, who has studied coyote behavior for decades in the US West, says it’s dangerous to extrapolate widespread conclusions from Ms. Mitchell’s death.

Mythology about predators, Mr. Crabtree says, led in part to annihilation campaigns aimed at grizzly bears, wolves, coyotes, and cougars well into the middle of the 20th century.

He notes that the number of cases involving coyotes biting people is small – far less than the number of humans killed or badly injured by pet pit bull dogs.

“Those coyotes in Canada must have been very habituated to humans, very likely the result of them either having been fed by people or having close associations with hikers,” Crabtree says.

In Yellowstone, where Crabtree has worked and where hundreds of coyotes have established territories in areas frequented by over 3 million people a year, there have been less than half a dozen incidents over several decades and each one involved animals that had been fed by tourists.

“Obviously, we have had issues over the years with food storage by hikers and campers,” he says. “But I’d be hard pressed to think of any incident, involving a bear, bison, elk, or coyote, that either wasn’t precipitated by a human’s close proximity to an animal or one that has become conditioned to eating human food,” park spokesman Al Nash says.

Around neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas where coyotes are seen daily, humans are far more likely to lose a pet cat or small dog to coyotes than they are to be threatened themselves.

Mr. Maughan, for one, sees coyotes as a benefit to Pocatello, Idaho, where he lives.

“There’s a lot of feral cats that eat the songbirds,” he says. “And besides making the cats go away, they control the squirrels, too.”

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