What used to be an iconic symbol of the western United States now inhabits nearly every county east of the Mississippi River. Yep, coyotes are everywhere these days, even in places they didn’t inhabit a decade ago. And they are killing record numbers of livestock. Across the nation, coyotes killed more than 33,000 sheep and lambs in 2014, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It isn’t just livestock producers who are feeling the impact. Coyotes take an even heavier toll on deer in some parts of the country. Research conducted by the University of Georgia found that in some instances, coyotes kill upwards of three-quarters of newborn fawns, contributing to a slight decline in deer numbers in many eastern and southeastern states.
So what can you do? For many farmers and hunters, the answer is simple: Dispatch as many as possible.
There are two lethal methods for removing coyotes: trapping and shooting. Guns likely take a heavier toll, simply because there are more hunters than trappers. Deer hunters in particular are taking the increase in coyote predation to heart. These days, few pass up an opportunity to shoot one. South Carolina hunters kill 30,000 or more annually, according to data compiled by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
A growing legion of hunters is taking up a more targeted effort at coyote hunting. Long popular out west, calling coyotes within shooting range in the eastern United States has paralleled the growth in coyote numbers in places like Georgia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. As such, hunting magazines have dedicated countless pages to the pursuit, offering how-to, where-to, and why-to advice for hunters eager to learn more.
When it works, calling coyotes into gun range is a fun, exciting way to help reduce their numbers. The most common and effective way to lure them close is with an electronic call that imitates their preferred prey, like rabbits, fawns, birds, or even kittens. Coyotes will sneak in to investigate the chance at an easy meal. Simply find a place with good visibility, turn on the call, and wait. It can take 20 to 30 minutes for a coyote to sneak in, so be patient.
Calling eastern coyotes isn’t that effective, though, especially for novice hunters. The animals can be reluctant to come to a call, and when they do, they often circle downwind through thick cover, smell you, and then retreat before you ever see them. At best, expect to see a coyote or two respond only on occasion.
You’ll have better odds at night because the animals favor the cover of darkness. The most successful hunters use a spotlight with a red lens. Coyotes are color-blind and can’t detect the red light. (Night hunting is illegal in some states. Check your state regulations before going afield.)
Trapping is more effective at removing larger numbers of coyotes, mostly because a single trapper can set dozens of traps on one farm. Those traps are out there 24 hours a day, too, working around the clock when most hunters are in bed.
Catching coyotes in foothold traps isn’t easy. In fact, it’s downright difficult. Coyotes are smart, cunning animals that learn to avoid traps if they aren’t caught in their first encounter with them, says Scott Barras, Virginia state director of the USDA’s Wildlife Services. In fact, inexperienced trappers often do more harm than good.
“Once a coyote has been educated, even experienced trappers have a difficult time catching it,” says Barras.
A better option is to find a local experienced trapper and invite him to set traps on your land. Some have turned their trapping into a business, and charge to remove problem coyotes. If livestock losses — or deer losses — are significant, it might be money well spent.
No easy solution
Be warned, though. No matter what your preferred method is, taking a handful of coyotes off the landscape will have little noticeable impact. There’s an old saying, “Kill a coyote and two show up to its funeral.” In other words, more coyotes quickly fill the void left by one removed from the landscape. They are smart, adaptive animals and they’re prolific breeders. Studies have found that as their numbers decrease, coyotes produce larger litters and have higher survival rates.
“If you want to have the most impact on reducing livestock predation through lethal means, conduct trapping or hunting right before lambing or calving season,” says Barras.
One study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Berkley found that trapping specific coyotes right before lambing season was most effective at reducing predator-related losses.
“Most coyotes don’t kill livestock. It’s usually one or a small family group that learned that small farm animals are an easy meal. The most effective thing you can do is remove those individuals through hunting or trapping. Randomly shooting coyotes really doesn’t take care of a specific problem animal unless you happen to get the one that’s doing the damage,” says Barras. The only way to know that you got the right ones, he adds, is if the losses stop.
Timing is critical for protecting deer, too. Studies have shown that the most effective time to remove coyotes is right before the fawning season, which takes place in May or June in most states. By taking coyotes off the landscape right before the fawns drop, you reduce the window of time for other coyotes to move in and fill the void.
A study conducted by North Carolina State University found that coyotes fall into two general categories: Transients and residents. The former consists of single animals, often young ones, that don’t have a home territory. They roam in search of one, settling down when they find a territory with ample food and little or no competition from other coyotes. It can take up to three months for a transient coyote to fill the void, giving fawns time to grow fast enough to outrun even the fastest predator. Resident coyotes have more or less settled within a territory.
Hunting can be most effective in the early fall, when young coyotes are striking out on their own and haven’t been educated by other hunters. It’s also effective in late winter, when food sources are depleted. A hungry coyote is more likely to come to a call than one with a full belly.
Once you undertake a lethal coyote control program, you can’t stop. If you do, their numbers will rebound within several months.
Protecting livestock and maintaining healthy deer numbers is far more complicated than shooting or trapping a few coyotes when the opportunity arises. Barras says the best way to reduce or prevent livestock losses is through preventative measures, which rarely include lethal methods.
“We always recommend husbandry practices first. Keeping coyotes away from livestock through a variety of means will often take care of the problem,” he says.
Exclusion fences are a good start. Woven-wire fencing with openings of four inches or less will help keep predators out of livestock pastures. However, determined coyotes will dig under, climb over, or find holes and other easy paths across a fence. An electric wire a few inches above the ground can discourage digging, and another charged strand at the top will prevent climbing.
“We recommend keeping calving and lambing areas close to barns or houses. Coyotes are reluctant to come close to buildings, so that will help reduce losses,” says Barras. “We also recommend keeping livestock that is about to give birth in well-protected enclosures or sheds if possible.”
Researchers also found that properly disposing of dead animals helps reduce livestock losses. Burying sheep or cow carcasses removes a steady food source and keeps coyotes from sticking around your property.
“A combination of several deterrent methods all used together will be the best way to reduce losses,” adds Barras.
Hunters who want to boost deer numbers on their land should not only shoot coyotes at every opportunity, they should scale back the number of does they shoot. Since they produce future generations of whitetails, the more does you leave, the better your chances of increasing your deer herd. As coyote numbers inch upward in many other parts of the country, reducing the doe harvest is a viable solution.
“We aren’t going to eliminate coyotes. They are here to stay, and there are too many of them to make a dent in their numbers through hunting or trapping. We just need to accept that,” says Barras. “The best we can do is change our attitudes about them and adjust the way we do things to accommodate for them.”
Guard Animals to the Rescue
Coyotes are actually timid animals. So timid, a llama or even a donkey will keep them away from livestock. It may seem like a stretch, but both animals can be vicious fighters, using their powerful legs, and in the case of donkeys rock-hard hooves, as effective and dangerous weapons. Both have an innate mistrust of canines and will stand their ground or even chase dogs and coyotes at every opportunity.
“Coyotes don’t like to get hurt any more than you or I do,” says Barras. “If they think they’ll have to risk injury for a meal, they’ll look elsewhere.”
That’s why dogs are such effective guard animals, too. Larger dogs, like the Great Pyrenees, will intimidate even the most aggressive coyote. The best guard dogs are big, at least 80 pounds, and are loyal to the animals they are raised to protect. The most effective dogs are raised around sheep starting at an early age. This allows them to form a bond with the livestock. They’ll stay close to the sheep and chase off any potential threat.
“Using a guard animal doesn’t mean you can ignore other deterrent methods. For the best results, include guard animals with proper fencing and other husbandry techniques,” says Barras.
Where’s my cat?
Do coyotes really eat house cats? Yep, but according to various research, they don’t eat them as often as many think. That’s because cats, even feral cats, rarely venture far from human development. They know that coyotes stay away from houses and other development. Cats are also capable climbers and will scamper up a tree or fence at every opportunity. Sometimes, of course, there is no tree nearby. Coyotes are faster than cats and will gladly devour a tabby when given the chance.
Still, researchers studying coyotes in and around Chicago analyzed hundreds of coyote scat and found evidence of cat (hair, mostly) in less than 2 percent. Coyotes in suburban Los Angeles also ate few cats, according to a study by the National Park Service.
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David Hart lives near Farmville, Virginia, with his wife, Navona. He is the father of two boys, Kyle and Matt. When he isn’t working to improve the wildlife habitat on his land, he can be found hunting or fishing.