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In Colorado, coyote protectors clash with a hired gun

At 6 a.m., Jay Tutchton set out on his daily hunt for the most feared, hated creature in this Denver suburb.

He followed clues along a gulch: a crushed goose egg; the breastbone of a duck, picked clean; scat, dense with gray fur.

But on this morning, the coyote was living up to its nickname of Wile E.

Tutchton didn’t spot any of the animals that have become the nemesis of many in this affluent city of 15,000 people.

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But when he does see quarry, he doesn’t shoot. He tries to stare them down. He charges after them. His mission: Harass the coyotes so they rediscover a sense of fear.

But whether that’s possible is a source of bitter contention.

In recent months, Greenwood Village has seen several pets attacked by coyotes, and a 14-year-old boy said a coyote lunged at him in a park. At that point, many residents demanded action.

They had tried shooing away the animals, the residents said, and it didn’t work. The time had come for deadly force. City officials agreed and pledged to exterminate aggressive coyotes.

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“I’m just talking about common sense here,” said one councilman at a meeting. “If there were a plague of rats, we would hunt them down.”

The problem is common across the Southwest, with communities often splitting into kill and don’t-kill factions. To some, coyotes are vermin; to others, they are symbols of the American West.

But here there’s a twist. Greenwood Village’s hired gun has clashed repeatedly with a band of coyote lovers, including Tutchton, who want to teach coyotes to avoid humans.

“You can’t kill your way out of the problem,” said Tutchton, 45, who thinks the city has done little to address human behavior that could be attracting coyotes.

State wildlife officials typically receive one report per year of a coyote biting a person, said Colorado Division of Wildlife spokeswoman Jennifer Churchill. Since December, four such incidents have occurred in the Denver area. Each time, the presence of a dog or human behavior such as feeding coyotes was a factor.

Coyotes have a natural fear of people. Rural residents reinforce that fear by shooting at them, but urban coyotes have grown emboldened, Churchill said.

It’s important to address conditions that attract coyotes, said John Shivik, a research wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center in Utah. Coyotes generally are not dangerous, but a coyote willing to approach humans could pose a threat.

In Greenwood Village this year, police have documented more than 200 sightings and 18 run-ins with pets or people.

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“The only way to really live with coyotes is to restore a healthy sense of fear of humans, which doesn’t exist in our neighborhood,” said resident Bob Hayner, who lives near a nature preserve populated by coyotes.

One nearly killed Hayner’s dog a year ago, snatching it by the head as it accompanied his wife to the mailbox. The coyote released the dog when she gave chase. Since then, Hayner has chased coyotes with a golf club whenever they have appeared on his property -- a tactic he says has worked.

But to resident Richard Fleenor, nothing fazes the coyotes that sometimes follow when he walks his small dog. He supports the city’s use of lethal control.

“They’ve reached a point where they can’t be frightened away from people,” Fleenor said. “Should we stay inside and let coyotes rule us from the outside?”

Many residents share Fleenor’s view and have detailed their concerns at city meetings this year. The mother of the boy who had a run-in with a coyote demanded that officials reclaim the city for people.

“My neighbors’ pets are getting killed, my kids can’t walk to school,” Debbie Scheper said. Blowing whistles or throwing balls at them hasn’t worked, she said.

Officials agreed and adopted the proposal to kill aggressive coyotes, though the plan also calls for educating people about the animals.

Mayor Nancy Sharpe defended the approach as erring “on the side of safety. . . . I’m not going to risk someone getting hurt because we didn’t take the action we needed to.”

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But as the city’s contractor, Jay Stewart, went to work this spring at $65 an hour, he said he encountered an obstacle to tracking down coyotes: hazers.

“They follow me, they stalk me, they take my picture,” said Stewart, who so far has killed one coyote. “They’ll put themselves between me and where I need to operate.”

Volunteers, organized by Nicole Rosmarino of the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, deny they have intentionally interfered with Stewart. But every day, dozens of them traipse the city’s trails and parks, scouring the brush.

When Nichole Zoccolante spots a coyote, she runs straight at it, screaming.

Outrage drove her participation, she said. “If you live near a preserve, you have to learn there’s wildlife in the preserve,” Zoccolante said.

After months of such activity, Rosmarino said, the tactic is working: “Every single coyote has run away from us.”

Their efforts might be working with some coyotes, but others may be learning to avoid the hazers, said Shivik, the wildlife biologist.

City officials are skeptical that the activists can solve the problem. “It hasn’t gotten any worse, but I wouldn’t say it’s gotten any better,” said Ryan Gregory, assistant to the city manager.

But in what activists view as a concession, city officials this month temporarily halted the hunting of coyotes, instead sending out police officers with paintball guns to do some hazing of their own.

“We wanted to give this a try,” Gregory said, adding that police so far had struck two coyotes.

But they’re keeping their hired gun on call. “We by no means have canceled Mr. Stewart’s contract,” he said.

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Correll writes for The Times.


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