Photo: Janet Kessler

Circling the Wagons Around Our Coyotes

Control of San Francisco's coyotes is under two departments, ACC and RPD. Both have limited knowledge about coyotes, so they brought in an outside consultant to help, particularly with education. If this were working, all would be fine and well. But it isn't. False rumors, say of dens, have been perpetuated rather than calmed by faulty site evaluations. Little if any useful information, help or support reaches the public, and an informational meeting last October did nothing to calm the public's anxiety level — it was a disaster. Participation from other veteran specialists has been suggested and offered, but ACC and their one-consultant are instead circling-the-wagons, as if everyone else were an enemy instead of a resource.

Let's back up a little . . .

The consultant was chosen from outside the city based on her list of notable and highly educated biologist "advisors". But on further examination, not one of these advisors studies, or has any experience with, urban coyotes. In addition, coyote coexistence can't function as a 'cookie cutter' program imposed from without — it needs local knowledge and guidance.

…let's stop removing dense, impenetrable (to humans and dogs), large areas of underbrush and thickets which coyotes use as harborage. In urban settings with so many people and dogs, coyotes need these areas to escape into.”

Due to the public's overwhelming dissatisfaction with ACC's laissez-faire coyote program, ACC is now charged with producing a "coyote management plan". This is a blueprint for how to coexist, requiring a description of urban coyote behaviors and how to respond to certain of these in order to keep the interface between humans and animals safe for both.

Instead of a true plan, the "ACC team" has supported radio-collaring and tagging of coyotes. This might be suitable for a graduate study — but not for a management program. Collars/tags may look dramatic for a news story, but, ultimately, they provide no data for management. And, they damage coyotes. Cataloguing of individual coyotes or families, if needed, can be accomplished by knowing their behavior, through sightings and ground transects.

So, reliance on an exclusive consultant hasn't worked. Outreach has been minimal and solutions offered were insufficient or ineffective — so much so that neighborhoods are skirting ACC by calling in a more seasoned expert — Mary Paglieri, Behavioral Ecologist and Human-Wildlife Conflict Expert/Manager with 17+ years of hands-on urban coyote experience. But she is being kept out of ACC's loop. Should the Supervisors (who oversee ACC) be allowing this exclusion in a department with this track record?

A "Management Plan" must start from understanding urban coyote behavior, family dynamics, territoriality, and habitat within particular environments. "Specifics" about coyotes, which tagging/collaring might approximate, are in constant flux — it's only the overall picture which will inform for this purpose. In my ten years of documenting, for instance, I continue to see ONE family in most parks, with a slight fluctuation in members over time as pups are born and disperse.

Also, coyotes move around, and dens are moved, so pinpointing these at any particular time won't aid anyone and may create a false sense of security or even the opposite, a greater sense of fear. Dens usually are in very secluded places — exact locations will have no impact for management unless right on or close to a path in which case, yes, it should be marked and foot-traffic diverted. But dog-walkers in any area of the parks will continue to be caught unawares unless they remain vigilant; this is what needs to be addressed.

What CAN be done? —

1) More signage and intensive educational outreach — "no dog-owner left behind" — for instance, at all pet-adoption centers and when dogs are licensed.

2) Emphasize dog-walkers' need for constant vigilance/awareness. Then, whether a coyote has been spotted far off, is approaching, or suddenly appears under foot, the "first line of action" for any dog-walker should be total avoidance — not hazing, which is engagement. This protocol, developed by Mary Paglieri, is easy to follow, especially for dog-walkers with little coyote knowledge or experience, and those who are fearful.

Elderly or fearful people shouldn't be taught to "haze"/harass coyotes, taught by ACC. Walking away accomplishes what is needed; the coyote's entire intention in approaching is to move dog and walker away. So, do it!

Vulnerable smaller dogs which might be viewed as prey should be picked up immediately. Guidelines should detail this.

3) Let's provide secure fenced play areas for small dogs.

4) Increase education about coyote behaviors to promote understanding and compassion instead of fear. Tolerance for coyotes can also be increased by improving communication with the community (you can't just say, "learn to coexist"). Coexistence can't work if humans remain hostile.

5) Understanding the gamut of human behaviors, attitudes and perceptions towards these animals is crucial — try questionnaires and written reports of incidents.

6) Finally, let's stop removing dense, impenetrable (to humans and dogs), large areas of underbrush and thickets which coyotes use as harborage. In urban settings with so many people and dogs, coyotes need these areas to escape into. Removing this dense foliage makes them more visible and allows dogs constant access into what once was "their" exclusive areas — more negative encounters between dogs and coyotes result. It also may make coyotes more prone to look for equally "open" spaces elsewhere, as they get used to these constant intrusions.

Janet Kessler has been photo-documenting and writing about urban coyote behavior, people and pets, in San Francisco parks, for ten years.

September 2016