Living with coyotes at Lake Tahoe
Special to the Sierra Sun
Living in a town so intertwined with nature allows residents to hike desolate trails, ski wide open slopes and swim in crystal clear waters. With the privilege to reside in the wilderness comes the responsibility of sharing with non-human inhabitants.
Online apps and websites like Nextdoor have become the hotspot for people sharing their likes, dislikes, misinformation and fear of Tahoe’s wildlife. One animal that has made a common appearance on the page sparking discussion is the coyote. Wildlife organizations constantally urge residents and visitors to get educated and coexist with Tahoe’s wildlife.
Coyotes are native to the basin and for many, they are a beautiful reminder of nature. The coyote has been on the lands long before European arrival and are an intrinsic part of the ecosystem along with having a respected place in the Washoe Tribe’s creation stories.
Due to coyotes sheer adaptability and resilience they continue to live in the Tahoe Basin and throughout the nation.
Coyotes have been persecuted for generations
Since the 1800s, agencies have been trying to eradicate coyotes from the landscapes in part to benefit the agricultural industry. Coyotes have been shot, poisoned, trapped, and aerial gunned for hundreds of years.
In 2020, USDA’s Wildlife Services, killed the most coyotes compared to any other animal listed as non-invasive. More than 62,500 coyotes were intentionally killed by wildlife services during 2020 and over 250 dens or burrows were destroyed with an unknown amount of pups.
This number does not include the amount of coyotes killed during killings contests that are still allowed in all but eight states in the country.
California banned contests that award prizes to participants who compete to kill the most animals in 2014 and the Nevada Wildlife Commission recently discussed the ban in late March of this year, but hasn’t made a decision.
Since coyotes have the same legal status as a rat, it means they have nearly zero protections. According to the nonprofit, Project Coyote, which focuses on coexistence with wildlife, it is estimated that half a million coyotes are killed each year.
Coyotes are generally about half the weight of a Labrador Retriever and can weigh up to about 40 pounds in some cases. Many times they appear larger due to their dense cold-weather coats in the basin.
Coyotes are usually monogamous with partnerships that many times last for several years and in some cases partnerships will last for life.
Territories, which are maintained by both males and females range in size but usually cover anywhere from 2 to 30 miles. Coyotes can live alone, with another or with their families within a territory.
Coyotes pups are usually born in spring starting from earliest in late March to May. Litter size depends on available resources including food, water and space, but typically four to six pups are in a litter but pup mortality is high with only 50-70% of those pups surviving their first year.
In late fall, some juveniles will begin to disperse in search of new territory, while some remain with their parents and form the basis of the pack.
Coyotes maintain a fragile ecological balance in the basin
Coyotes are omnivores and their diet consists of mice, insects, snakes, lizards, rabbits, rats, voles and other small mammals which make up about 80% of their diet along with vegetables and fruit.
“This can really be an asset living within forests and the edge of meadows with high rodent populations,” said Denise Upton, animal care director at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care. “Coyotes are opportunistic omnivores so they will also consume fruit, insects, trash or any available food source.”
The diet of the coyote helps keep rodent and rabbit populations in check. Coyotes also clean up the roads by consuming roadkill.
“Coyotes offer free rodent control,” said Fox.
They will eat upwards of 1,800 rodents in a year.
Through competitive exclusion, coyotes also naturally limit the populations of mesocarnivores such as skunks, raccoons and feral cats, in turn benefiting the ground and songbird populations.
Coyotes also help mitigate rodent-borne disease transmission, especially in areas where Lyme disease is present.
Fox explained since the eradication of wolves, coyotes have stepped in a role as the apex predator in the area.
“That role has a top down effect that maintains biodiversity through trophic cascades,” she said.
Organizations want to stop the spread of misinformation about coyotes
“We get calls at LTWC a few times a year with the caller wanting to report a wolf or coywolf,” said Upton.
Despite the way they might look, there are no wolves or coywolves in the Tahoe Basin, only coyotes.
“We also have people telling us that they have ’heard’ coyotes killing small pets at night,” said Upton. “A few coyotes can make big noises, but they do not advertise a kill. They’re actually just communicating with each other.”
With 11 different vocalizations, the howls, yips and barks of a few coyotes can sound like several. Coyotes can be heard throughout the day but it is most common to hear them at night, sometimes even in response to sirens and other loud noises.
While coyotes don’t vocalize a hunt or advertise killing pets, they do see small pets as a small game animal food source.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, coyotes attacks are extremely rare and there have only been two recorded human deaths by a coyote.
“The biggest thing is many people misinterpret coyote behavior,” said Project Coyote Founder and Executive Director Camilla Fox.
She said a coyote’s bold behavior is commonly misunderstood as aggressive behavior.
During this time of year as coyotes start giving birth, a common behavior known as “escorting” can be common. A coyote may try to escort you and your pet from the area around their den.
“This should not be misinterpreted as aggressive or stalking behavior,” she said.
Fox also said that most K-9s can pick up on this behavior.
Another myth that has populated Nextdoor is that coyotes lure pets.
“There is absolutely no scientific basis that coyotes lure dogs away to prey on them,” said Fox.
Coyotes are naturally timid and scared of humans, but the ones who show less fear do so because they have been habitualized by humans from intentional, unintentional feeding and could be expecting a handout.
“They usually fear humans but can become less fearful due to intentional or unintentional feeding by humans,” Upton said.
LTWC urges residents, just like with bears, to not feed coyotes, because they can too become habitualized with humans. Because urban and rural landscapes offer food, water and shelter, as a homeowner, it’s imperative to make the area undesirable to wildlife.
Upton also asks the community to secure trash and remove attractants. When you feed your pets, do so indoors so coyotes are not enticed by the smell of pet food.
Keeps cats inside and when walking or hiking on trails keep dogs leashed to keep dogs from approaching dens where coyotes are raising their pups in the months between March and May.
“Most of the conflicts we see arise with off-lease dogs where coyotes are simply just trying to protect their young,” Fox said.
According to the Project Coyote website, if you frequently see a coyote in your yard, make loud noises with pots, pans, or air horns, and haze the coyote with a water hose. A can with pennies taped inside can work as well to haze a coyote in your yard or on walks.
“Perhaps at some point in time, we can all learn to live in harmony with coyotes and other creatures that, like us, just want to find a safe place to raise their young,” said Upton.
Upton asks that if someone hits an animal on the road to please call LTWC at 530-577-2273.
For more information and resources on coyotes or coexistence, visit projectcoyote.org.
Cheyanne Neuffer is a reporter with the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun.
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