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Coyotes in Maryland: Where they came from and what to expect

Adult coyote; by Matt Knoth

Adult coyote; by Matt Knoth

No, coyotes didn’t ride into the state at the hand of insurance companies looking to thin out the deer herd to reduce deer-vehicle collisions. And no, wildlife management agencies didn’t stock them across the state. These are two funny but common myths surrounding the arrival of these highly adaptable mid-sized canines and their arrival in Maryland.

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Adult coyote; by Steve Thompson

An expanding range

While humans may have been indirectly responsible for the migration, these wily animals expanded on their own without any direct assistance.

Coyotes were originally a mid-western species that occupied the prairies, west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains. They were confined to the Great Plains largely due to the absence of two larger predators in that area—mountain lions and wolves. As humans developed the east coast, wolves and mountain lions eventually became extirpated, or removed from that portion of their range.

Human settlers also cleared eastern forests for agriculture, shipbuilding and other industries. This change in the landscape created a better setting for coyotes—more field and edge habitats similar to what they had been accustomed to in the Midwest.

With less competition and a friendlier landscape, coyotes began to expand their range in the early 1900s, following two major courses: a northern route that led out of the plains through Canada, around the Great Lakes, into New England and then south, and a southern route that went across the Mississippi River, through the southeastern states and then north.

Maryland and Delaware were the last two states in the east to be inhabited by coyotes, since the northern and southern expansion routes met here. They can now be found nationwide and throughout most of Canada and Central America.

The first reported Maryland sightings came in 1972 in Cecil, Frederick and Washington counties. Though they were slow to establish a breeding population, they now inhabit all counties, with higher numbers in the western part of the state.

Adaptations and sightings

True generalists, coyotes thrive in a variety of different conditions and terrains, including forests, open fields, tidal wetlands and the greenways that surround many suburban communities. It appears they have been utilizing these spaces for decades, though they typically avoid being seen.

Wildlife biologists monitor the population primarily through harvest reporting and surveys. Results reveal that sightings are relatively low. Both of the species’ canine cousins—the gray fox and the red fox—are observed much more frequently. While observation rates drop significantly from west to east, coyote sightings are reported statewide, suggesting they inhabit some areas in every county.

While the population increase is likely to continue, there is little cause for concern. Coyotes will likely continue to go unnoticed by most residents, just as they have for the past few decades. Here are some common sense steps to reduce the possibility for conflict:

  • Remember coyotes are wild animals—respect them and give them plenty of space.
  • Don’t try to approach or feed them.
  • Don’t leave food out where they can access it, as this only increases the chance they lose their natural fear of people.
  • Feed pets or livestock inside homes or barns. If you must feed them outside, give only enough food for one meal at a time so there are no leftovers to attract unwanted guests.

Traits and characteristics

Coyotes are the largest wild canines in the state, and they tend to be larger than their western cousins. Most weigh 30-40 pounds, though they can reach more than 60 pounds. They have large, erect ears and notably pointed muzzles with close-set eyes.

Coyote pup; by Tom Koerner

Coyote pup; by Tom Koerner

They are approximately 18-24 inches high at the shoulder and have bushy, black-tipped tails. Their typical coloration, somewhat resembling that of German shepherds, is brown or buff interspersed with mottled gray or black. Eastern coyotes are also more likely to be seen with some non-typical coloration, such as black, reddish or even blonde fur.

One possible explanation for the bigger size and non-typical color variations stems from the northern migration route. Some researchers—backed by scientific evidence—believe these coyotes bred with wolves as the species expanded eastward.

Coyotes are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals. They are opportunistic, eating whatever may be available. This includes plant and vegetable matter, insects, carrion and small mammals such as rodents, rabbits and birds.

They have also been known to take deer—primarily fawns during the first few weeks of life when they are more vulnerable. Once fawns reach about six months of age, however, they are much more mobile and less susceptible to predation.

The coyote-deer dynamic is one that has been subject to scrutiny in recent years, and therefore has been increasingly researched throughout North America. Recent studies suggest that while coyotes could potentially depress a vulnerable deer population, that is not the case here in the mid-Appalachian region. Deer have evolved with predators throughout time and are ecologically suited to survive alongside Maryland’s newest resident predator.

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Hunting vole; by Tom Koerner

Territory and human interaction

Coyotes employ several different social strategies. Some may live by themselves while others can be found in social groups. They may even sometimes switch strategies, choosing to live with other coyotes only at specific times. They tend to have large home ranges, covering several square miles, which they actively defend from unwelcome visitors and intruders alike.

Coyotes adeptly travel the landscape undetected. They learn quickly that getting too close to people could lead to their demise. Recent research demonstrates relatively high mortality rates caused by vehicle collisions and hunting. Despite this, however, populations continue to increase and expand.

At the Department of Natural Resources, we have learned that when there is a conflict, such as a coyote attack on pets or livestock, it is usually the result of an individual or group of coyotes that has lost its fear of people. Once removed, the issues tend to go away, even if other coyotes are still known to be in the area.

State law allows landowners to trap or hunt a coyote that is damaging or destroying personal or real property on their land. Additionally, technical assistance is available to residents who have experienced a conflict by calling the nuisance wildlife information line at 877-463-6497.

We have been sharing our landscape with these animals for decades with relatively few reported conflicts or confrontations—on average, less than one per year. It is our hope that we will continue to successfully share the landscape with these highly adaptable canines well into the future.

 

Article by Harry Spiker—game mammal section leader with the Wildlife and Heritage Service.
Appears in Vol. 19, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2016.

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