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Coyote-Tracking Web Site Exposes Canine, Human Troublemakers

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
February 7, 2007
 
Part of the Digital Places Special News Series
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Wild coyote packs in Rhode Island have expanded their territory to the Web.

Thanks to an online tracking system, Web users can follow Jepsy, Seabee, White-Tip, and their kin as the animals roam the islands of Narragansett Bay (map of Rhode Island).

The Narragansett Bay Coyote Study is using the technology to determine how many coyotes call Aquidneck Island and Jamestown home, and whether the local coyote populations are growing.

(Related news: "Coyotes Trade U.S. Western Plains for East's Urban Jungle" [June 8, 2006].)

"We get a really complete picture of where they go each day, where they sleep, how they may come out into open areas at night," said Numi Mitchell, director of the coyote study.

The scientists also hope to learn more about the behaviors of the adaptable animals and the resources they use to survive.

The project has already uncovered an unexpected trend that has put both coyotes and people's pets at risk: homeowners feeding the wild canines, enticing the animals to expect easy meals if they venture into human territory.

The ideal result of the program is a management plan that would help humans and coyotes coexist while keeping conflict to a minimum.

Busted

Thirteen coyotes from the islands' ten different packs were fitted with state-of-the-art collars that use high-frequency radio signals and global positioning systems (GPS).

The collars register each coyote's exact location every hour, seven days a week.

Each morning the devices broadcast the last 200 locations for the coyotes. Scientists can then plug the locations into mapping software to track the animals' movements.

Each collared coyote is assigned a colored dot on a map, so researchers can get a sense of where the coyotes' territories are and how much those ranges might overlap.

(Related news: "GPS-Equipped Pigeons Enlisted as Pollution Bloggers" [October 31, 2006].)

The dots also reveal when coyotes might be venturing too close to residential neighborhoods—right down to which houses the animals regularly visit.

"In general most packs avoid residential areas—unless they've been trained," Mitchell said.

"Trained" coyotes are animals that have learned to expect food from human hands—directly or indirectly. The map project has already revealed that this is too common an occurrence in Narragansett Bay.

"What it displays is that people are causing the coyote problem by subsidizing them," Mitchell said. "It blew us away. It just never occurred to me that people would [intentionally] feed coyotes."

In one neighborhood "half the people are freaked out, wondering why coyotes are walking down the street and looking at them pretty boldly. The other half of the people are feeding them."

Researchers identified one problem property next door to a woman whose Jack Russell terrier had been killed by coyotes.

"I drove up the driveway and said, 'Hi, I'm Numi Mitchell with the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study. Seen any coyotes?'" Mitchell recalled.

"Well, it was just the nicest couple in the world [who came to the door]. We began talking and after just a few seconds they said, 'Well, we know we really shouldn't have been doing this, but we've actually been feeding them.'

"I said, 'I know.' And they said, 'How did you know that?'

"We went inside and got online and I showed them their own house on the Web site." The coyote-feeding stopped immediately.

"We feel like, Let's do that a million more times and we've got it made," Mitchell said. "The way to [quickly] do it a million more times is through the Web site" and an aggressive outreach program.

Many human-provided foods are inadvertent, including roadkill, garbage, and pet food left outdoors.

But the GPS technology is revealing where these food caches turn up and can help wildlife managers eliminate them.

Coyotes in the Classroom

For the scientists, the coyote mapping study is providing valuable real-time data on the animals' behaviors. But the Narragansett Bay Coyote Study has also been opened up for public use.

The project set up a Web site called the Coyote Mapper, which displays the same information for a general audience.

The main difference is that the mapmakers program the location data with an intentional time delay, because truly real-time data could put the coyotes at risk from hunters or tormentors.

Many schools have incorporated the project into their curricula, from the elementary to the high school level.

"There's a fascination of students looking at the maps and saying, Jeez, this coyote was on our school's football field at a certain date and time," said Lyn Malone, the project's director of education.

"But they have also been doing a range of things, as far as the technology goes.

"Teacher Jim Kaczynski in Jamestown has his students use geographic information systems [GIS] to look at different things, such as how does coyote behavior vary in different weather, or how does male and female behavior differ?"

The project's sponsor, the Conservation Agency, is also creating an online gallery of behavior maps, to illustrate the project for those who may not have constant access to GIS software.

"What I love about the project is that it's real, ongoing science," Malone said. "It's not a curriculum where the conclusions are already known."

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