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Urban coyotes spark debate over safety

Ohio State University's Waterman Dairy Center is located in a busy urban area. It sits at the intersection of Kenny Road and Lane Avenue on OSU's west campus. Researchers keep a small herd of cows in barns and pastures, but recently more unusual livestock showed up on the farm. Managers of the farm and area residents have reported seeing coyotes, an animal more associated with open range, especially in western states. The sightings sparked a controversy about whether the animals should be removed from an area frequented by students and livestock. OSU wildlife professor Stan Gehrt says the phenomenon of urban coyotes has been increasing for the past decade:

"We have certain lines of evidence in Chicago that suggest they are increasing," Gehrt says. "And certainly the reports we get in the Columbus area with residents seeing coyotes more and more frequently would also suggests that they are increasing, as well."

Gehrt has monitored coyote habits for six years. His current study focuses on Chicago, where he has found and tagged 221 coyotes in areas near Navy Pier along Lake Michigan, and in alleys near the Sears Tower in the downtown loop. With the increase of urban coyotes has come an increased amount of fear of the animals, but Gehrt says city dwellers shouldn't worry about attacks.

"Probably the biggest myth is that it happens a lot, in terms of a coyote attacking either people or livestock," Gehrt says. "In fact, it rarely happens, especially in the urban areas. Over the last 30 years, there has been fewer than 50 attacks by a coyote on a person."

Back at the Waterman farm, the coyotes seem to have disappeared. While touring the farm Gehrt noted the lack of coyote excrement, what he calls scat. On previous trips he says scat was readily apparent, and that the disappearance of scat might indicate animals were trapped and removed from the farm. Farm manager John Lemmerman contacted Gehrt last year about coyote control methods after spotting a coyote in a cattle barn. Gehrt says he advised Lemmerman if he trapped the animals and let them go, they would instinctually know not to return. Lemmerman would not comment when contacted for this story, saying he received hate mail regarding a Columbus Dispatch story in which he said he saw coyotes as a threat and wanted to get rid of them.

Coyotes have also been spotted in several of Columbus' metro parks. Gehrt says several people have reported seeing the dog-like animals near trails and rivers in parks throughout the city, but officials have never deemed them a nuisance. Suzan Jervey is the head naturalist at Highbanks Metro Park, located alongside State Route 23 near the busy I-270 intersection. She says the park is home to many coyotes, and they have never been a problem.

"We do see them along the roads, whoever opens the park or closes at the end of the evening usually sees them. There are a lot of misconceptions about the coyote, that they are dangerous and they are going to attack people during the day, and we don't have those kind of problems in the East," Jervey says. "They eat small items like mice and squirrels, but they're not going to go after a person. They're not going to go after a person's pet if they're on leash, for the most part."

While walking the park Jervey pointed out several pieces of coyote scat in highly-visible areas, a sign the animals are active and healthy. The Ohio Division of Wildlife considers coyotes a nuisance animal, and does not have laws protecting them if they are on private property. Jervey says Metro Parks will remove any animal from a park if it becomes necessary, but has never had to.

While no one knows whether humans and coyotes can permanently live together safely in large cities, Gehrt says preliminary evidence suggests they can.

"So far, what it looks like is that the majority of coyotes coexist with people on a daily basis. Usually the people don't that they're there because they're so good at what they do, and in most cases we have very little problems with them except for the occasional cat," Gehrt says.

Gehrt says his work in Chicago is the largest intensive study of urban coyotes in the United States.