They Come In Peace (sort of): Coyotes find a new home in the Twin Cities

Fabio Michele Capelli

Fabio Michele Capelli

The runner rounded a bend along leafy West River Parkway in Minneapolis, weaving to avoid bicyclists.

Suddenly, a fearsome shape loped onto the path from the dappled underbrush. Beady eyes, narrow grin. Thick, mottled coat. A bit too small for a wolf, but clearly not a neighborhood pet.

Both stood still, staring at each other. One, a trembling runner, the other a feral animal.

Instinct took the initiative. The animal fled, disappearing through the tree line. The runner wiped his brow.

Meet the urban coyote.

Coyotes have been streaming into southern Minnesota for decades, and encounters in the metro area are multiplying.

“I didn’t even think there were any coyotes here in the city,” says runner Hayden Rutan, a law student and this writer’s brother.

City people aren’t accustomed to sharing space with wild animals, especially those that at least appear to be dangerous. We make exceptions for squirrels and rabbits, though gardeners aren’t especially fond of the latter. We barely tolerate raccoons, save for those skilled enough to climb St. Paul skyscrapers on video.

Yet where prey lives, predators hunt. A city teeming with rodents and overflowing with garbage presents too much bounty to pass up.

Though the DNR does not perform coyote counts, rough estimates show populations gradually rising in the Twin Cities since the 1990s, while simultaneously diminishing in the north woods. From Chanhassen to South St. Paul, Eagan to Coon Rapids, sightings have risen substantially.

“They’re secretive, but they’re not intimidated by people, and they can adjust very easily,” says Peggy Callahan, director of the Wildlife Science Center in Stacy. “It doesn’t take much intelligence to find a place where you can eat rats and mice and garbage and deli food.”

That’s left a growing number of Twin Citians with a personal story to tell.

“I noticed a coyote twice in the last month,” says accountant Catherine Jordet, who lives in St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. “One was walking along the sidewalk across the street as I walked to the bus stop in the morning,” she says, admitting to feeling a little edgy at the sight. “I grew up in the country and heard them howl before, but not in the city.”

House painter Gordon Reger sees them regularly near West River Road and Highway 610, “mostly just sitting in the grass, watching traffic.”

Down in South St. Paul, “there are coyotes all around the pond near the airport,’’ says Dick Holtz, a St. Paul barber whose girlfriend lives near the South St. Paul Municipal Airport. “They keep the geese off the runway.”

Despite their increasing proximity, our understanding of coyotes remains elementary at best.

The fact that coyotes still thrive is a testament to their survival skills and intelligence. Averaging just 30 pounds, they are relatively small and weak. They can’t rely on superior size or power to bring down large game, so they evolved along a similar path as humans, developing savvy and cunning over size or strength.

Once they reach 12 weeks, they learn to hunt small prey and survive on their own. Unlike wolves, coyotes prefer solitary quests for food, though groups occasionally team up to take on larger prey.

Their primary food sources are small rodents and mammals, supplemented by berries and other fruit. Strong stomachs let them eat most anything, including carrion and garbage.

But they’re also more terrified of people than we are of them, and instances of attacks are exceedingly rare. In Minnesota, there has been just one reported case. Last October, something bit a 57-year-old Apple Valley woman in the face as she and her husband jogged in a park. They thought it was a coyote, but the animal was never found.

Despite the rarity of attacks, some worry that an influx of coyote-human interactions will result in more.

The Pioneer Press’ Joe Soucheray recently penned a column in response to St. Paul Animal Control Supervisor Molly Lunaris’ live-and-let-live approach to the animal. He cited a 1981 incident in which a coyote dragged a 3-year-old girl from her driveway in Glendale, California, breaking her neck. He also noted an April attack on a 5-year-old girl in Mount Pleasant, New York, in which police had to shoot the animal.

Coyotes are more terrified of us than we are of them. Attacks are exceedingly rare.

Coyotes are more terrified of us than we are of them. Attacks are exceedingly rare. Wildlife Science Center / Jenni Bidner

“Most of us cannot identify with that mindset,” Soucheray wrote of Lunaris. “Coyotes are deceitful opportunists. They are not cute or fluffy or otherwise warm and caring…. Given half a chance, they would tear a 2-year-old child apart.”

Steve Stenzel came face-to-muzzle with a coyote while running on River Road near the Lake Street/Marshall Avenue bridge. “It was the biggest coyote I’ve seen, and it was scarily bold,” he wrote in a post on Nextdoor. “Pet owners, beware!”

Sherry Ladig, who lives on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, issued a similar warning: “Small dogs—and kitties, too—lunch by any other name to a coyote. I know lots of folks let their kitties roam, but these guys are hungry (and fast), and cats are the perfect size meal. Be careful!”

Still, the animal’s fans seem to equal its critics. Residents in Highland Park created a fan page celebrating the “#HIyote” with memes and jokes.

The truth is, coyotes aren’t naturally aggressive toward humans, and will generally ignore us unless they feel threatened. The real danger comes in allowing them to become too comfortable around humans, which can increase the likelihood of stalking cats and dogs, and potentially small children. Coyotes that no longer fear humans have no problem strolling through neighborhoods or playgrounds in broad daylight, undeterred by warning shouts.

The quickest way to habituate a coyote is to feed it, the most common cause of attacks on people. It essentially teaches coyotes that humans mean them no harm.

That’s a departure from how they’ve long viewed people, since humans are the animal’s most ruthless predator. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States waged a crusade against wolves and coyotes, rationalized by a commitment to the mass farming of livestock.

Between the 1930s and ’60s, for example, the U.S. government spent millions developing poisons like strychnine, which was mixed into bait and seeded across the country. An estimated 6.5 million coyotes were exterminated between 1947 and 1956 alone. The killing was cheap and easy, and men made small fortunes selling hides for $1 a pelt.

We now know better than to hunt animals with poisoned bait, given the environmental impact. Yet coyote hunting is not regulated in most of the United States. Only Alaska has a bag limit, a maximum kill of two a day.

The animals are trapped for their pelts, which are soft and warm and can fetch a good price with taxidermists or coat-makers. In many states, coyotes are still seen as threats to livestock and deer populations, with bounties offered for their hides.

Rarely do hunters need such an excuse. From the Midwest to the South, there are dozens of tournaments built around who can kill the most. This year, the West Metro Coyote Tournament in Watertown, Minnesota, brought together 87 sportsmen and women, leaving 18 coyotes dead.

Conservation groups in Oregon, California, and Idaho have successfully petitioned for reductions or outright bans on the sport. Minnesota has not. The DNR reports that roughly 4,000 coyotes are killed annually by trapping or shooting—a figure that doesn’t account for unreported killings on private land.

The disappearance of wolves from their post-colonial habitats demonstrates the success of America’s war on wolves. But efforts to decimate coyotes have been much less successful. Ironically, the attempted slaughter was the catalyst for their expansion across America.

Coyotes adapt easily. When wolves disappeared from much of their habitat in northern Minnesota, for example, coyotes quickly took their place. Now, as wolf populations rebound, coyotes are gradually leaving the area.

As northern Minnesota wolf populations rebound, coyotes are migrating south.

As northern Minnesota wolf populations rebound, coyotes are migrating south. Roger Egge

Coyotes are social, vocal animals. Spend a night in the Minnesota countryside, and there’s a good chance you will hear the howls and yips of a den.

Their communication acts as a roll call of sorts. If a pack doesn’t hear enough response to its calls, an automatic primal trait is triggered to produce larger litters. Females double their litter sizes, giving birth to as many as 16 pups. This has enabled them to survive amid predators and extend their range far from original habitats.

After a cull by hunters, populations can bounce back within a year. More coyotes means more mouths to feed, resulting in increased attacks on livestock and pets.

A hundred years ago, coyotes were nonexistent east of the Great Plains. European settlers called them “prairie wolves.” Now they live in every major city, coast to coast.

California has had trouble for decades. Most of the reported attacks since the 1980s—an estimated 200 or so—have been in Southern California, where the animal has roamed for thousands of years.

The state has tried everything from hiring hunters to using snare traps, then releasing their catch in the country. Nothing has worked. Removing coyotes from one area only invites others to fill the void.

Since 2005, sightings have skyrocketed in Denver, where they’re found lurking around parks and elementary schools. Colorado began to study their behavior, diet, and where they were sighted. Researchers found they were drawn to high rodent and rabbit populations, garbage, bird-feeders, and pet food left outdoors. Conversely, the more abundant the natural prey—say, prairie dogs—the lower the rate of human-coyote conflict.

A coyote spotted on Como Lake in St. Paul, where sightings are rising.

A coyote spotted on Como Lake in St. Paul, where sightings are rising. David Joles / Star Tribune

The city went to work training park staff and residents to haze the animals with air horns, rattles, and squirt-guns. It worked. Sightings plummeted in a matter of months.

Still, the danger to small pets and perhaps children does exist. While most large domestic dogs can fend off an attack, smaller dogs and cats look like appetizing meals. Coyotes have been known to occasionally stalk dogs along sidewalks and park trails. The most aggressive will even attack dogs in backyards.

The conflicts follow a tried-and-true pattern. A dog notices an intrusive animal behind the bushes and, dutifully defending its territory, immediately gives chase, only to land in the jaws of its street-wise foe. A short flurry of bites and shrieks will ring through the air. Lucky dogs are saved by their owners before getting too badly hurt.

In 2011, a Schipperke named Smokey was strolling around a yard in Edina when a coyote snatched it up. Smokey’s owner rushed to its rescue, making herself as big as possible while yelling at the coyote and chasing it off.

Last December, a coyote was spotted stalking pets near St. Paul’s Hidden Falls Regional Park. The curious animal circled wary park-goers, coming within 10 feet of a man and his puppy. A cop fired a warning shot, scaring it away.

But in urban holy lands of half-eaten fast food, coyotes aren’t inclined to chase down Shih Tzus for breakfast. Dogs and cats are viewed more as competition than lunch. Research from Denver found that pets comprise less than 5 percent of their diet.

Yet there’s little comparable research in the Twin Cities. Samantha House, a researcher with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, has been tailing elusive coyotes for two years. At “howl stations” scattered from Hastings to Champlin, volunteers broadcast pre-recorded howls, then measure the local den’s territorial warning reply. Trail cameras also hint at a pack’s health and size. They appear to be thriving.

Though St. Paul Animal Control has encouraged residents to report problems, those issues seem few. The city is committed to using non-lethal means. It has yet to resort to killing. “We’ve found hazing to be effective,” says Lunaris.

And there’s a good chance it will remain that way—as long as people don’t feed the coyotes.

Sawyer Rutan is a freelance writer focusing on the outdoors.