University project studies urban coyotes

Finding ways to peacefully co-exist with this adaptable species

Coyotes are watching us. Where we are. What we do. What we have, and what we throw away. Every interaction teaches them something about living with humans, how they can take advantage of our behaviours, and what they can get away with.

Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta, has been studying urban coyotes since 2009. 

“It was already apparent that urban coyotes were becoming more common, and there was conflict between humans and urban coyotes. It was obvious that the behaviour of the coyotes was playing a role, they were choosing more urban areas to live and acting bolder than people were used to.”

St. Clair and her graduate students studied where the coyotes lived, what they ate, their health, and behaviour, and they monitored rates of human-coyote conflict. Through their website, edmontonurbancoyotes.ca, they invited the public to report coyote sightings in their neighbourhoods.

“Over many years, the rate of reports of people describing coyotes in their neighbourhoods has increased. It seems that people are having more experiences with coyotes that are also bolder, and many residents are concerned about this trend and they would like to see it addressed.”

The Urban Coyote Intervention Program runs from January to May 2021, and January to May 2022. | Gerry Potter

Eradicating coyotes from the city by hunting or trapping is likely impossible—others would arrive to take their place, and as a species, they are adaptable and would find ways to survive. 

“When coyote populations are persecuted, it changes them. They breed at earlier ages, they have larger litters, and in cities they have higher survival of juveniles. So all of those things would create a bigger and denser population of naive, desperate coyotes.”

Besides that, Edmontonians generally accept and appreciate wildlife within the city. Peaceful co-existence with coyotes and other urban wildlife is possible, but requires some effort on our part.

In order to find ways to do this, St. Clair and her graduate student, Gabrielle Lajeunesse, are overseeing the Urban Coyote Intervention Program which will run from January to May this year, and again January to May 2022.

“We have started this experiment to see if the members of the community can be a part of the solution to this [rising conflict] by seeking out coyotes in their neighbourhoods, in residential areas where they don’t want them: schoolyards, residential lots, streets, alleys.”

The proposed solution is a technique known as aversive conditioning. In other words, whenever a volunteer sees a coyote get within 40 metres, they lob a weighted tennis ball wrapped with flagging tape at the creature until it runs away. Volunteers in control neighbourhoods will just record coyote sightings to compare how the behaviour changes.

“The idea of this is it increases a sense of fearfulness and re-establishes wariness in the animals so they don’t let people get as close, and if they don’t let people get as close, the sense of threat or conflict is reduced.”

She says the technique teaches coyotes that we are not to be trusted, and to find somewhere safer to live. “One of the things we know from the reporting website over the years is that coyotes move around, and they do seem to be quite responsive to be made unwelcome. That contributes to our belief that this program will work.”

Volunteers are trained online, and the research team would like to see a few more signed up. To learn more about it or sign up as a volunteer, go to urbancoyoteinterventionprogram.weebly.com.

If you are interested in helping but don’t have time to volunteer, you can keep your streets coyote-safe by doing your own aversive conditioning (scaring them away) or reporting your observations on the Urban Coyote website. Dangerous coyotes should also be reported to 311.

People out walking (with or without dogs) with concerns about keeping safe can find resources on the website. Generally, standing your ground and acting aggressive will scare them away, and it’s a good idea to carry something to throw or a stick. 

“Something I specifically suggest is an umbrella. In a worst-case scenario where a coyote is approaching and you feel frightened, an umbrella might be the most behaviour-changing tool that is available to us because nothing else can create the sense of a big barrier quickly and unexpectedly. And if you use one of those auto-opening umbrellas, they’re dramatic.”

It is also crucial to teach your dog not to chase or attack a coyote, or better yet, keep them on a leash. 

“Some people have reported on the website that they have let their dog chase the coyotes, and even as a way of teaching their dogs a lesson—people have actually used that language. But what they are really doing is endangering all dogs by teaching coyotes that they can dominate dogs,” which is a dangerous lesson to be teaching.

The program hopes to train us to train coyotes to remain a safe distance away. With the evidence collected by the study, St. Clair hopes it catches on, even if it isn’t formalized in a bylaw.

“If we were to be able to conduct this experiment in a way that shows that it works, then people will be equipped with that information. Most people will do the logical thing when they have that information available.”

Feature Image: People can co-exist peacefully with coyotes, but it takes effort to train coyotes to stay away. | Colleen St Clair

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