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Not-So-Coy Coyotes : Residents Warned to Watch Children Carefully as Housing Tracts Move Into Habitat Canyons

Times Staff Writer

In San Clemente, coyotes serenade each other from the front lawns of startled residents.

In East Tustin, the sight of the coyotes prancing through one neighborhood has prompted residents to post “Beware Coyote” signs.

And in Fullerton, coyotes have become so brazen at Orange County’s Craig Regional Park that they stand and glare at approaching rangers before calmly retreating into the brush.

As new housing tracts push steadily into the shrinking wilderness of Orange County, coyotes are turning up at an ever-increasing rate. And with February and March the mating season, cougars are more visible--and louder--than ever.

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“I hear them howling so much that it’s like an animal pow-wow,” said Linda Emerson, 29, a San Clemente homemaker whose property abuts open hills.

Although no figures are available on exactly how many coyotes inhabit the county, an indication of their abundance can be gleaned from the few agencies that log coyote-related calls.

Orange County Animal Control officials, for example, say they are receiving as many as 100 coyote complaints a year now, compared to virtually none a decade ago. Most of the calls are coming from the foothill communities, where the county’s development is now concentrated.

In San Clemente alone, officials have logged more than 60 calls in the last year, most from the city’s new housing tracts, which snake into rolling hills.

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Numerous coyote sightings have also been reported nearer the coast. Coyotes have been known to run down the middle of streets in Laguna. And in Dana Point, coyotes inhabiting a deep canyon ringed by development awaken residents at night with their howls.

“We do hear them approximately three nights out of seven,” said Chris Christianson, 26, a resident of Dana Point’s Thunderbird tract, which overlooks the canyon. “They’re not really that much of a problem other than they disturb you in the evening with their howls.”

Cowardly creatures by nature, coyotes for the most part are not a threat to humans, wildlife biologists say. But they can become vicious if they begin relying upon neighborhood food sources and, in the process, lose their fear of humans, said Bruce Cahill, a Los Angeles County wildlife biologist who consults for Orange and other Southland counties.

“They steal lunch bags from children. Adults are threatened if they come up on a mother and her pups,” Cahill said.

The first sign of trouble is when the coyotes start getting into the garbage, said Tom Paulek, a State Fish and Game wildlife biologist in Long Beach. Next, they start going into backyards and gobbling up any leftover pet food. Then they start gobbling up the pets.

Eventually, Paulek and Cahill said, coyotes become so dependent on these artificial food sources that they lose their desire to hunt for small game. And when this happens, small children can become the targets.

In Southern California, there have been only a handful of incidents since 1980 in which coyotes have attacked and injured children; the most serious occurring in 1981 when a young girl was attacked and killed by a coyote in Glendale.

In Orange County, there have been four reported coyote attacks on children in recent years; three in San Clemente in 1983 and 1986 and one in Yorba Linda in 1987. None of the attacks was fatal.

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Coyote attacks on pets have occurred in such heavily urbanized areas as Craig Park in Fullerton, a 124-acre preserve which is neatly surrounded by shopping centers, housing tracts and freeway. In recent months, coyotes there have killed several small dogs left unleashed against park rules, said Joe Cooke, the park’s senior ranger.

Cooke added that the park’s coyotes--numbering perhaps half a dozen--have also become so bold that they pause to watch as rangers drive up. A coyote’s normal reaction to approaching people is to bolt immediately.

Rangers at two other county parks, Carbon Canyon Regional Park in Brea and Irvine Regional Park in Orange, are also reporting increasingly brazen coyotes.

Unlike mountain lions and other large wild animals--whose populations have diminished as development has encroached into their habitat--coyotes seem to thrive on close human contact and have eluded man’s efforts to control their population.

50 Per Square Canyon Mile

Studies by the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commission have shown a coyote population as dense as 50 animals per square mile near new developments; they average just 1 animal per 10 square miles in the wild.

The population explosion is fueled by the new housing developments that offer an ideal combination of additional food and water for coyotes, Cahill said.

And the greenbelt areas that now accompany most large housing tracts afford “perfect habitat” for coyotes, he said: “They use the greenbelts for refuge from jumping in and out of back yards. And the coyote doesn’t have to worry about some farmer protecting his crops.”

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But what is good for the coyote is not good for man.

“We all have this romantic view of the coyote, but coyote and man in large quantities are just not compatible,” Cahill said.

Mass killing of the animals is not a solution, Cahill and other wildlife experts said, because it is neither desired nor politically acceptable.

Limited kills, which were conducted in San Clemente in 1983 and 1986 after toddlers were attacked, had the short-term effect of weeding out “troublemaker” coyotes and deterring others, said San Clemente Fire Marshal Gene Bagnall.

“The last time we did this, we left kills in the field to dissuade other coyotes from coming in,” Bagnall said.

33 Coyotes Shot to Death

In 1983, a police sharpshooter patrol tracked and killed 11 coyotes; following the 1986 attack, a hunter killed 22 more.

But Bagnall added that the limited kills are only a stopgap. Eventually--perhaps as soon as this year--the city will have to send a hunter out to get rid of new problem coyotes, he said.

The best solution to the problem is educating the public on how to keep food away from coyotes, Bagnall and the other wildlife experts agreed.

Bagnall ticked off a few do’s and don’ts: “Don’t leave dog food out. Don’t leave your cat out. Put lids on your trash cans.”

Above all, never deliberately feed the coyotes. One man in Glendale, for instance, used to feed the neighborhood coyotes more than 100 pounds of pet food per week, Cahill said.

Ordinances Forbid Feeding

San Clemente enacted an ordinance prohibiting people from feeding coyotes, as has Los Angeles County and several L.A. County communities.

When coyotes are not stirring up problems, many people enjoy having them around and listening to their plaintive wail.

One San Clemente man expressed disappointment, in fact, when coyotes failed to turn up near his home when he entertained out-of-town guests last week.

“We asked our visitors after their first night if they had heard the coyotes, and they said no,” said the man, who did not want to give his name. “I had wanted them to put on a show.”

COYOTES AT A GLANCE RUSS ARASMITH / Los Angeles Times

Canis latans

Size: Head and body length, 29.5 to 39.4 inches; tail, 11.8 to 15.7 inches. Males usually larger than females. Weight range, 15.4 to 44 pounds.

Appearance: Upper parts buff gray with paler underparts; legs dull reddish yellow or brownish yellow, tip of tail black. Distinguished from Canis lupis (wolf) by smaller size, narrower build, proportionally longer ears and a much narrower snout.

Habitat: Native of North America. Mainly open grasslands, brush country and broken forests. Natal dens are located in such places as brush-covered slopes, thickets, hollow logs, rocky ledges and burrows. Usually hunts at twilight or night, average 2 1/2 miles on a hunt. Migrates to high country in summer and returns to valleys in fall.

Speed: One of the fastest land mammals in North America with speeds up to 40 m.p.h.

Diet: Mammals, mostly rabbits and rodents, although a pack can hunt and kill a deer. In some regions, much of the diet can be supplied by carrion or livestock. Some coyotes form hunting partnerships with badgers--the coyote’s better sense of smell locates rodents and the badger is better equipped to dig them out.

Population density: Normally 0.5 to one individual per square mile but can go up to five per square mile under favorable conditions. Coyotes are found alone, in pairs or small groups, but are generally less social than wolves. Females choose a male during mating season and they usually remain together as a hunting pair for several years.

Howls: Coyotes have at least 11 different vocalizations. Howling, the most common, seems intended to announce location.

Life cycle: Gestation averages 63 days and litters average six young with a range of two to 12, with births in the spring. Young coyotes emerge from their dens after 2 to 3 weeks and are fully weaned at 5 to 7 weeks. Adult weight is attained at 9 months. Breeding usually begins at age of 1 or 2. Maximum recorded age in the wild is 14 1/2 years; in captivity, one animal lived 21 years, 10 months.

Relationship with man: In the 20th Century, man has virtually eliminated coyotes from parts of Texas, North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Nevada. Meanwhile, the species, possibly because of declines in wolf population, has spread into New York, New England, the Appalachians, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia and Southeastern Canada.

Source: Walker’s Mammals of the World, 4th edition, 1983


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