Unseen masters of the wild

By Posted on Jun 27 2015 | By

Fauquier County home to growing coyote population

They are everywhere but nowhere. They range the entire state of Virginia surviving and thriving on all matter of food from grass to house pets; if it’s edible its fair game. And yet to spot one is a rare privilege bestowed upon the precious few.

Consider: There are 8.2 million Virginians and at least 50,000 coyotes in the Commonwealth. But try to find someone who has seen one. Wile E. Coyote has a well-earned reputation for elusiveness.

coyotesIt is believed the first coyotes in Virginia were Midwestern pups brought in by man during the 1950s, raised and then released. But by the late 1970s, a decades-long natural migration from the southern states was in full bloom. Soon after, the animal dropped down from the northeast joining his southern brothers and creating a pincer movement into the Old Dominion.

Today, there is a minimum of 2,000 coyotes in Fauquier County. They are here to stay. The animal has a legendary track record for being impossible to eradicate. One could even say it’s a lost cause; something old-line Virginians have historical knowledge of.

“We do not recommend counties establish bounties. They don’t work,” said Mike Fies, wildlife research biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “There’s a 150-old-year record of total failure. You can’t kill enough coyotes with a bounty system to make a difference in the population.”

Nonetheless, 17 out of 95 counties in Virginia offer bounties ranging from $25 to $75 a pelt. Fauquier County is not included. A typical male weighs 45 pounds and a female about 10 pounds less.

With or without bounties, the number of coyotes in Virginia continues to grow; slower west of the Blue Ridge where they are well-established and faster in the Piedmont and counties surrounding the nation’s capital.

One enduring rumor is the Shenandoah National Park brought coyotes in to maintain its deer herds. “I’ve heard that rumor for 30 years,” said Fies. “It’s hogwash.” Once they breeched the Mississippi River their movement east was slow but inexorable.

But man rarely interacts with them, and livestock and pet depredation are not a major problem—yet—so is their presence cause for real concern? 

The Trapper
Finding someone who has interacted with a coyote is like finding trout in an overfished stream. Good luck. But one line of work provides amble opportunity to come face-to-face with all manner of wildlife: The trapper.

Trapping conjures up visions of mid-1800s mountain men opening up the west. Yet the profession still exists in the 21st century. Often, today’s trapper is employed to eliminate a “problem child” of the forest and fields.

Burt Herbert, owner of Animal Removal for Keeps based in Manassas, traps throughout Northern Virginia. He has trapped coyotes in Fauquier County but the majority of calls for help come from Lorton and Great Falls. Great Falls? “Oh yes, we even have them around Sports Authority in Manassas,” said Herbert. Who knew?

“The eastern coyote is much more wily, cunning and bigger than the western coyote,” said Herbert. This is likely due to its hybridization with wolves in Canada and the northern states before descending down the east coast.

“Most of my phone calls are due to coyote sightings around houses where they are killing people’s pets. If they kill the dog, they will usually leave the dog. But if they kill the cats, they usually take them away,” said Herbert.

As a professional trapper, Herbert has 30 years experience and has an endless number of tales to share; some quite extraordinary. “I’ve seen a coyote scale a six-foot-high privacy fence with a cat in its mouth. I didn’t believe it could have gotten up it but it sure did,” he recalls.

To provide an even clearer picture of the scope of the Fauquier County population Herbert said, “There have been packs of over 20 in the county. I know somebody who shot 23 of them in one evening coming down to kill his sheep.”

He elaborates that the animal’s diet ranges from grass, mice, rabbits, fawns and cats up to sheep and calves. They are opportunistic hunters.

Notwithstanding his first-hand experience, his coyote trapping is limited to about a dozen kills last year; certainly not reflecting an epidemic of depredation.

Coyotes are legally defined as a nuisance species and can be hunted year round. But given its limited intrusion into the lives of humans a case might be made for a live and let live attitude.

Whatever one’s take on coyotes, it is without a doubt one of the most intelligent and fascinating creatures in the wild kingdom.

                                                 Living with coyotes 

                             Follow the rules and pets will remain safe

No animal has greater respect for you than Mr. Wily Coyote. Its respect and fear of Homo sapiens has been purchased at great cost.

The animal has been relentlessly hunted for over 200 years and paid the price with much loss of life.

Of course, it’s learned a lot along the way too.

So while it has nothing to do with you personally—hey, a guy has to eat—pets are almost irresistible dining if given the opportunity to strike. Hunger trumps respect.

Here are the keys to keeping the clever ones at bay:

*Remove all unnatural food sources from around your home. Pet food left on the porch or overflowing garbage cans are fast food restaurants to the dining out coyote. If they find these treasures with any regularity at the same location, a real problem emerges; they can become emboldened. That’s not good.

*Do not tolerate coyotes around your residence. It’s seemingly a feather in your cap for a coyote to find your homestead inviting (is it the landscaping or the color of my home?) but habituation to man is the leading cause of attacks on four-legged family members. More seriously, it may even evolve into aggressive behavior toward you.

*When walking small dogs or playing with children in known coyote habits, keep pets on a leash and children close at hand. Attacks on humans are extremely rare but take no chances.

*If you spot one in the yard, make sure it knows it’s unwelcome. Yell or throw non-edible objects in its direction. It can’t read “No Trespassing” signs but humans who are aggressive will send them packing.

Finally, if you do see one at a safe distance consider taking a video. You’ll be assured of multiple likes on Facebook or even a viral run on YouTube. Yep, that’s how rare filmed encounters are.


Published in the Summer 2015 edition of inFauquier magazine.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES