A federal wildlife official called the recent spate of coyote attacks here "intolerable" and agreed Wednesday to help the city launch a controlled coyote hunt.
Pete Butchko, a supervisor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's animal damage control program, said finding the aggressive coyotes responsible for the recent attacks is the city's "only practical option."
A press conference has been called for 9 a.m. today to present details of the planned course of action agreed upon by the city and federal authorities.
"When you have coyotes attacking pets in back yards, that's a red flag," Butchko said. "A bold and brazen coyote that has adopted the behavior of being unafraid of people, I would think, would be an intolerable situation. Our slogan is, 'Be concerned about any coyote that is not afraid of you.' "
The coyote hunt would involve trapping and relocation of the coyotes, and killing them only as a last resort, city officials said.
"It wouldn't do any good to just go out and hunt coyotes, that's just not appropriate," said Jim W. Knight, the chief of the San Clemente Fire Department, which is also responsible for animal control. "We're looking at a problem . . . with maybe one or two coyotes that have become used to people," not with all the coyotes in the area, he said.
Six coyote attacks, including one on a 5-year-old girl in her own back yard, have been reported within the city limits this month, all in the Forster Canyon neighborhood in north San Clemente.
The Forster Canyon community lies three miles from the coast and is within a half-mile of the county's Prima Deshecha Landfill, which tends to attract coyotes and other scavengers looking for food among the garbage, according to city officials.
Because the attacks are limited to one area, Butchko said, the aggressive coyotes probably could be found.
"Coyotes roam somewhat, but for the most part they are territorial," Butchko said. "If attacks are happening in one area, you can pinpoint the coyotes in that area and there's a high degree of probability you can get those coyotes."
In many California counties, the USDA would have stepped in already, said Butchko, who supervises the area from Visalia south to the Mexican border. But Orange County does not have an operating agreement for such animal services with the USDA, he said.
"We would have someone who lives in the county, who knows the area and who could respond instantly," Butchko said.
Each year, the USDA kills about 7,000 coyotes in California, mostly to protect livestock in counties with contracts. But "we have never done this before in response to urban coyotes," Butchko said.
Handling coyote-control problems takes "a special skill," he said. "You just don't find many people who are able to do it. It's either us or a private company. But it's obviously a touchy, sensitive thing."
A controlled coyote hunt would involve trapping with either a cage, which is "notoriously ineffective," or a padded leg-hold trap. Shooting the animals would be a last resort, Butchko added.
"Safety is our first concern here," Butchko said. "This is nothing to be reckless about."
Butchko called hunting the coyotes the only practical short-term alternative for the city. A longer-term method would be to modify the habitat in the area, he said.
"Theoretically, if you can make the area a little less attractive to coyotes, it helps, but that's a long-term effort that takes a communitywide effort," Butchko said. He said it would mean removing all fruit trees, all possible food sources in back yards and building fences.
"Sometimes there is no complete answer," he said. "If you have someone intentionally feeding coyotes, which has happened in the past, then they are creating the problem."