Ask any deer hunter in Georgia, North Carolina or Pennsylvania and he’ll swear his woods are brimming with coyotes. He might have heard their high-pitched yips and howls on a cold November morning or he might have found the remains of a partially eaten deer carcass. There’s no question the eastern United States has more coyotes now than a decade ago, but are we really up to our neck in the predators?
Maybe, maybe not. Some regions of the South and Southeast are seeing a spike in coyote numbers, but coyotes are anything but abundant in other parts.
Poor Habitat, Low Numbers
A study in two western Virginia counties found low population densities, despite claims by local residents. “When I talked with some of the people in my study area, they were convinced the area had a high coyote population, but that wasn’t the case based on our research. I think it’s fair to say they are seeing and hearing the same coyotes that are showing up in different locations,” says Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate Dana Morin. She spent three years tracking 21 coyotes on mountainous national forest land. She also conducted DNA sampling on more than 5,000 scat samples to determine population data. (Most of the scat collected was not from coyotes.)
What she found was somewhat shocking and contrary to what many people believed. The region supported just one coyote per 5 square miles in one county and far fewer, about 1.4 per 10 square miles, in a neighboring county. “Home ranges were 8 to 10 square miles, on average, but they were considerably larger in the winter,” says Morin. “That was probably related to lower food abundance. There just aren’t as many things to eat that time of year.”
Better Habitat, More Coyotes
There’s no question densities are higher in other parts of the East and Southeast. In fact, some regions already have more coyotes than many Western states. A 1972 research paper conducted by Texas biologist Frederick Knowlton referenced other studies that looked at coyote densities in various Western states. One region of Kansas had about two coyotes per square mile, while south Texas had as many as six per square mile. North-central Utah had up to four, but parts of Missouri had as few as .07 per square mile. Texas’ Edwards Plateau (located in west-central Texas) also had a relatively low coyote density.
Based on data gathered in South Carolina, deer hunters kill an average of 1.4 coyotes per square mile statewide. Some counties, mostly in western South Carolina, give up nearly four per square mile. “Obviously coyote densities have to be some factor higher, maybe two times, three times or four times, to support that harvest, but I have no idea what that would be,” says South Carolina Department of Natural Resources deer project supervisor Charles Ruth.
It’s difficult to determine a statewide density, says Ruth, because habitats vary so much and because coyote litters can vary in size based on a number of factors. However, he added that county-by-county kill data is a good indication of relative density. “If deer hunters are killing more in one county than in another, it’s reasonable to assume there are more coyotes in that county,” he says. “But without some sort of actual study, it’s impossible to know population densities for a specific area.”
What We Know
A recent study conducted in south-central Georgia does shed a little light on coyote numbers in that region. Dr. Will Gulsby, a graduate student at the University of Georgia at the time, was examining fawn predation and coyote removal on two wildlife management areas. Each study area was about 5,000 acres.
He estimated coyote abundance to be about 2.4 per square mile on one WMA and less than two per square mile on the other one. Both had good habitat. (Coyote numbers were calculated prior to trapping efforts.) He relied on fecal genotyping to estimate overall populations. Basically, Gulsby and his fellow researchers gathered scat along predetermined routes and submitted samples to a laboratory, which was able to tell if each dropping came from a different animal. They collected 340 scats, of which 238 were usable. Sixty-one percent were from coyotes.
“It’s difficult to estimate populations, and there is some evidence that suggests there are territorial populations and transient populations, so we don’t know if the scat was left by a resident coyote or one that was passing through,” says Gulsby, now an assistant professor at Auburn University. “Some places do seem to have astronomical numbers based on anecdotal information, though. That could be something related to geographical features. Transient coyotes tend to use things like rivers, roads and even power lines as travel corridors. That could be why some areas have more than others. We also know younger ones tend to be more transient, so they just may be more visible to hunters and others who are out in the woods a lot.”
The primary reason the region Morin studied had such a low coyote density was the habitat. The mountains of western Virginia consist mostly of homogenous, 70- to 100-year-old forests with little undergrowth; the valleys consist of pasture, crops and lawns. Much of it is poor habitat and supports little in the way of rabbits, deer and other coyote prey. That’s one reason coyote populations are more abundant in some areas. It’s all about the habitat. Gulsby says coyote densities are highest in regions with the best habitat, which, of course, provides them with the most food. Generally, if it’s good deer habitat, it’s also good coyote country.
Although coyotes are known to prey heavily on whitetail fawns, they need something else to eat the rest of the year. Fawn predation generally drops to almost nothing after fawns reach about eight weeks of age. That’s when the young deer are capable of outrunning a coyote.
“[Coyotes] mostly eat rodents, but they also eat a lot of fruit and other plant matter in the summer and fall,” says Gulsby. “They also consume a lot of deer in the fall and winter, which is probably mostly hunter-killed or road-killed deer.”
Ruth says coyote numbers appear to be higher in some parts of South Carolina simply because they’ve been there longer. “They came to South Carolina two ways: Through natural migration from the West, which would explain why we have higher densities in the western part of the state, and from illegal transplanting by hunters, which would explain why there are more in areas we know they were released,” he explains.
An End In Sight?
Does that mean areas with few coyotes will see a spike in populations in coming years? Not necessarily. There’s no question coyote numbers have increased throughout the East and the Southeast over the last 20 years. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries sends out an annual survey to bowhunters asking them to report various wildlife sightings during their time in a treestand.
In 1997, Virginia bowhunters reported seeing just one coyote for every 1,000 hours spent in the woods. Sixteen years later, they saw 10 times that, or one for every 100 hours. The South Carolina DNR also conducts a survey of deer hunters who are asked if they killed any coyotes during hunting season. In 1999, hunters reported shooting 8,796 coyotes. That number doubled in 2003 and nearly tripled in 2008. What researchers don’t know is whether or not populations have reached their carrying capacity. In many regions of the Eastern U.S., coyote numbers already exceed those of many Western states. Again, that’s a product of the habitat. Many Western states include large expanses of open prairie or agricultural fields, which offer little in the way of food or cover. Much of the East is a giant food plot teeming with deer, rabbits and a variety of small rodents and birds. Young pine plantations and regenerated clear-cuts are ideal wildlife habitat.
But even with ideal habitat, there is only so much food available. That’s why Joseph Jones Ecological Research Center scientist Dr. Mike Connor thinks they might have leveled off in Southwestern Georgia, where his facility is located. In fact, he saw a dramatic decrease in coyote numbers in 2008. “We didn’t have any here that year,” he recalls. “We aren’t sure what happened. Maybe they got hit by a disease. We don’t know, but they did bounce back the following year.”
Gulsby also thinks coyotes might have already reached their carrying capacity in many regions. He knows of no hard data to support that, but conversations with hunters, landowners and fellow biologists suggest that coyote sightings have remained relatively stable in recent years. That seems to be what’s happening in South Carolina, too. Despite a rapid increase in coyotes killed by deer hunters between 1999 and 2008, numbers peaked at about 32,000 in 2011 and have fallen to around 30,000 in recent years. “I think we are getting to a point where we will see environmental factors play into their populations, just like we do out West,” says Gulsby. “When their numbers get too high, disease or a decline in available prey will knock their numbers down.”