There was once a rumor that every sheep and shorebird on the rural Elizabeth Island of Naushon had been eaten by coyotes.
It’s not entirely true, but it’s a story that can offer some guidance — if not a cautionary tale — for Martha’s Vineyard, where there have been increasing, but still rare coyote sightings.
Numi Mitchell runs a conservation group in Rhode Island called the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study, under the 501(c)(3) scientific not-for-profit organization the Conservation Agency. She lives on the island of Jamestown, R.I., which had its own influx of coyotes.
Since 2004, the group has looked at sustainable ways to live with coyotes, which were new in the Narragansett islands at the time of its founding.
The research eventually led them to Naushon in 2009, where the presence of the coyotes had been documented.
According to Mitchell, both the sheep and the endangered shorebird populations there are alive and well today, but that doesn’t mean the island didn’t have a “coyote problem” of its own.
Residents and farmers on Naushon were complaining about coyotes hunting some of their livestock, and picking off the wild sheep that are present on the island. The coyotes were also visible during the day, and hanging around human establishments, mainly the island’s garbage dump, where food waste was also composted.
Mitchell called it “the gentlemen’s exchange.”
After receiving a call about a problem coyote at the dump, Mitchell went over to take a look at what was going on. She commented on the popularity of the island’s single garbage dump among several coyote individuals living on the island.
“When there’s a resource like that, coyotes take advantage of it,” she said. One man’s trash is another coyote’s treasure.
Mitchell said congregating around what she called anthropogenic, or human-generated, food sources, like the dump, is typical of coyotes. This can come with its own set of risks and rewards for these wild animals.
According to Mitchell, the Naushon project began with a coyote that was found at the dump with its head stuck in a pickle jar, earning him the name Pickle. Had humans not been there to intervene, Pickle might not have had such an easy time getting the jar off his head.
With coyotes being attracted to manmade food sources, what’s the best way for humans and coyotes to healthily and safely coexist? The solution that Naushon found: Ship compostable garbage off the island, and keep it secure until time to do so.
While coyotes can be a nuisance or even a danger, people can also pose dangers to coyotes. The recommendation from Island wildlife officials is to “train” coyotes, while they’re still new to Martha’s Vineyard, to stay in the woods and away from human structures as much as possible.
Mitchell says there is “plenty of room” on the Vineyard for coyotes. A single pack of coyotes, that can consist of between 3 and 7 individuals, typically claims about 3 square miles of territory.
If there were multiple coyote packs on the island, Mitchell suspects it’s likely they would all try to position themselves near the town dumps, or other areas where they can find easily available food. According to Mitchell’s research, coyotes have the unique ability to adapt their litter size based on how much food is readily available, so the more access to consistent food a pack has, the bigger the coyote pup litter size will be.
Coyotes do provide benefits to the ecosystem — as they found on Naushon — like helping to maintain the excessive deer population. Maintaining a deer population could in turn help control the spread of tick-borne illnesses.
According to aerial survey results from the Island boards of health, the density of deer on the island reaches as high as 50 deer per square mile in some areas. That’s compared with just 19 deer per square mile on the Cape.
Naushon trustee Paul Elias, who worked closely with Mitchell and the conservation agency to solve the coyote troubles, told The Times when coyotes first arrived on Naushon in 1987, there was a documented plunge in the deer population. Over the course of five years, coyotes took deer numbers from a high of 650 individuals to a low of about 60 individuals, according to Elias. The remaining deer were the largest and strongest left. The population has since rebounded to more than 100 deer on the island today, but the initial impact was stark.
Elias called it “a Darwinian moment.” As a trustee, Elias worked closely with Mitchell and the conservation agency to solve the coyote troubles occurring around the dump.
Both Mitchell and Elias noted the “wolf genes” in the Eastern coyotes, saying that unlike their Western relatives, Eastern coyotes are more prone to hunt in packs, like wolves, and take down larger prey, like deer.
With island coyotes having pack-hunting proclivities, it is likely that once a pack forms on the Vineyard, the pack will be able to successfully hunt deer. Right now, as individuals, they are likely hunting smaller prey, and scavenging roadkill and other easy food sources.
As for the shorebirds, while some islanders may be alarmed at the appearance of an apex predator, wolves were once native to Massachusetts and Martha’s Vineyard, and deer and shorebirds evolved in adaptation to these predators.
The appearance of coyotes is more like a “reintroduction,” and Mitchell says that Islanders should not fear for ecosystem repercussions on endangered shorebirds or other prey animals. “Sure, they’ll take some endangered birds,” said Mitchell. “But remember that this whole area had wolves initially, so the birds should be adapted.”
Human-generated food sources for coyotes were the main problem Mitchell warned about. This includes everything from roadkill deer to easily accessible garbage and compost bins, leaving cat or dog food outside, birdfeeders, raising livestock like chickens and sheep, and of course, the town dumps.
Elias also noted that food availability directly correlates with coyote population size. Coyotes can breed very quickly, and the more food they have available, the larger the litter size will be.
“What our study has found is that it’s completely within human ability to control the numbers of coyotes anywhere by simply reducing the number of anthropogenic subsidies we provide to them,” said Mitchell.
For farmers on the island, Mitchell had several suggested strategies to put in place. “If people have guard dogs, it’s really useful,” Mitchell said. “Our most successful sheep farmers have Great Pyrenees mountain dogs that live with the sheep and do a great job of explaining to the coyotes that the sheep are the dog’s territory. So those dogs do that well.”
Elias also brought up the concept of use of a single guard llama, which can protect sheep and interfere if a coyote or dog is menacing its flock.
“The other thing,” Mitchell continued, “that’s an absolute must for backyard chicken raisers or sheep farmers, is to never let a coyote get a taste of what you’re trying to raise.”
The Conservation Agency website reads, “Our research on the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study (NBCS) has shown that coyotes can learn to specialize on particular foods. A coyote that eats dead sheep will quickly learn to eat live ones. However, those that are not allowed to develop a taste for sheep ignore them. If farms get off on the wrong foot with coyotes, it can be a difficult cycle to break, with clear economic impacts.” On a similar note, a coyote that gets a taste of dead deer will quickly learn to eat live ones.
Farmers can protect their livestock by getting a sheepdog, having their sheep lamb indoors instead of out in the field, properly disposing of deceased animals off the property, properly hazing coyotes, and, if it comes to it, shooting coyotes.
Mitchell commented on a farmer that had “reduced his pack to individuals that know the rules.” These particular coyotes learned to hunt voles and mice in the nearby field, as opposed to going after the farmer’s chickens and sheep.
“They do have a sense of family,” said Mitchell, “so I think losing a family member and being nearby when it happens will be impactful to coyotes. But it’s much better, easier, and more humane to just control ourselves.”
Like other coyote experts have recommended, Mitchell said that having a consistent, Island-wide strategy for reducing anthropogenic food sources for coyotes is key, along with educating the public on how to properly haze and “train” coyotes. In addition to keeping a close eye on small dogs, residents and towns may want to look into secure bins for compostable garbage to keep coyotes away from foraging.
“The hardest thing we’ve found,” said Mitchell of learning to coexist with coyotes, “is changing human behavior. If you can get a population of residents to do that, you can change your whole relationship with them.”