Without a natural predator, coyote populations in North Carolina are freely expanding, both inside and outside of cities. They usually keep to themselves, but the problem is that coyotes in cities can easily become accustomed to being around humans, and that's when conflicts can occur — especially for those humans who aren't quite accustomed to coyotes themselves.
Chapel Hill resident D. J. Rogers was just starting his regularly peaceful commute one morning in September when he had one such encounter. He saw them as he was starting to leave his apartment, but they just looked like a couple of dogs at first. As they came a little closer, however, he realized they were definitely coyotes.
"Knowing coyotes aren't fond of human encounters, I just bang around a bit more headed down the stairs, thinking it will scare them away," Rogers said. "It did not; next thing I know, I am being silently stalked by two coyotes, quietly but surely closing in on me."
Rogers began to run, and he heard the coyotes doing the same behind him. "Just as I am about to cut a corner and lose them, I fall, ripping my shirt in the process," he said. He then lay there a minute — composing himself and preparing to throw down against some coyotes — but it turned out not to be necessary.
"In the time it took me to have an existential crisis, the coyotes fled," Rogers said.
Coyotes aren't entirely new
Coyotes are not new to North Carolina, or even to Chapel Hill, but they have become more of a visible problem in recent years. "I had heard news about coyotes being spotted all over Chapel Hill and Carrboro, but I figured that the odds of encountering one were pretty slim," Rogers said.
Jason Allen, wildlife biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission assigned to Orange County's district, said the coyote population of Orange County is definitely growing. "We know we've got coyotes in every county; we know the numbers are increasing," he said.
Allen said there are more coyote sightings in areas with more ongoing development, like Chapel Hill, for example.
Hunting coyotes is legal in rural areas of North Carolina, but it isn't permitted inside of most cities. "If people would hunt them, yes, it would effectively manage the population," Allen said.
Roland Kays, a director at the Nature Research Center at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, said that hunting doesn't work to keep coyote populations down. "They breed pretty quickly," Kays said.
"What it does do though is make them afraid of people," Kays said. He said that without hunting, coyotes stop being afraid of people, and that's when there are problems.
Kays says that scientists are working on better ways of managing coyote behavior, but at the moment hunting is the only tactic that has any effect. "Sirens, loud noises or lights, or different things like that – they just get used to it," he said.
There are, however, plenty of other tools and habits that individuals can use to avoid conflicts with coyotes without shooting at them.
The best way to prevent conflicts with coyotes is to keep yourself and your pets away from them; avoid giving them any kind of shelter, and try not to leave anything they can eat outdoors and accessible — like fruit, pet food and garbage. Actual coyote attacks rarely involve anything beyond cats or small dogs, according to information published by the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission.
Kays says that coyotes are more than just pests to be managed. "They're basically our largest predator in most of North Carolina," he said. "They play an important ecological role in keeping a lid on the rabbits, deer, mice and rats."
They're not so much vicious invaders encroaching on our land as they are new neighbors moving in down the street; we just have to be courteous and a little cautious.