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Coyotes plague islanders

North Whidbey resident Dale Cheney shows three coyotes he shot recently while hunting on the island. Many Whidbey farmers welcome his hunting on their land to reduce the number of coyotes, which are known to be livestock predators. - Jessie Stensland
North Whidbey resident Dale Cheney shows three coyotes he shot recently while hunting on the island. Many Whidbey farmers welcome his hunting on their land to reduce the number of coyotes, which are known to be livestock predators.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland

One morning last month, Joseph and Gayle Cerullo found their belted Galloway cow injured on their North Whidbey farm. The animal, one of an unusual type of Scottish cattle, had been like a pet to Gayle, who brought her to the Highland Games and the fair.

The cow had been ripped apart in the pasture as she was trying to give birth. They put her out of her misery.

The perpetrators, the Cerullos believe, were coyotes.

"It was devastating," Gayle said. "People need to know that we have a real coyote problem on the island. They seem to be more aggressive than ever."

Most people who live in the Whidbey countryside have seen or at least heard Canis latrans. While the crafty creatures have become a normal part of the island's landscape, coyotes seem to be getting into more and more trouble lately with residents, pet owners and both large-scale and hobby farmers.

Nobody knows for sure how many coyotes are on Whidbey Island or even how they got here.

Dale Cheney, a friend of the Cerullos, went out to their farm after the cow was killed and shot a few of the coyotes that live in the area. He's been hunting the small dog-like animal on the island for years.

In fact, Cheney might have been the first person ever to shoot a coyote on Whidbey. He was "calling" fox back in 1975 and ended up getting a coyote. A story in a Skagit County newspaper claimed it was the first one on the island.

Roger Sherman, a Coupeville farmer, said red fox first started showing up in Central Whidbey in the 1950s. He had some problems with them killing turkeys. But then the coyotes came in during the mid-1970s and the red fox disappeared.

Coyotes are a far worse problem.

"While some people like seeing them around, we hate them," he said. "They're absolute killing machines."

There have been reports of coyotes killing many different types of livestock, from ducks to dogs. Coupeville veterinarian Ken Leaman said he's dealt with dogs and cats that have been badly injured, presumably by coyotes. He said it's common for cats just to disappear: Coyotes are usually blamed.

Sheep and lambs seem to be coyotes' favorite livestock prey. Eleanor River, a sheep farmer in the West Beach area, said she lost five sheep to coyotes over the winter. The coyotes dragged four of the ewes outside of the fence and ate them. A fifth died in the attack.

The fact that the sheep were eaten is a tell-tale sign that coyotes were involved. Dogs or even wolf hybrids tend to kill or injure livestock, but don't usually dine on them.

Not only did River lose five valuable sheep but, she said, she's had to change her whole operation around because of the coyote attacks. She used to allow her flock to stay overnight on a large grazing field, but now she brings them in closer to her house.

"It's increased my feed bill and it's not the healthiest living situation for the sheep," she said, explaining that the sheep have to stand in mud and manure at night because the smaller area is crowded.

Even the Navy has had problems with coyotes. Matt Klope, a former biologist at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, said coyotes create safety concerns on the runways. Coyotes like to hunt mice on the base, and at least one airplane hit a coyote.

On the other hand, coyotes, native or not, have become an important part of the island ecosystem. This is especially important now that there are no foxes.

Jack Laufer, a former Whidbey Island resident, coyote expert and curator of Wolfhaven in Olympia, said coyotes kill an amazing number of rabbits, mice, rats and other vermin. They also help to keep the island's exploding population of deer in check by preying on the old, injured and very young.

Also, Laufer argued that coyotes get blamed for many of the livestock kills that dogs are probably doing. Indeed, Island County Animal Control Officer Carol Barnes said dogs killing livestock is a major and growing problem on the island. Usually, the problem dogs are house pets that are allowed to roam, not wild dogs.

Laufer said he "very much doubts" that coyotes could have killed Cerullo's cow. He said he's never heard of coyotes killing any full-grown cattle in 20 years of studying the animal.

"They're just too small," he said. "They would have to jump pretty high to grab a cow's throat.

Yet he admits that "there's no question coyotes do kill livestock." While coyotes usually hunt alone or in pairs, he said they will also "pack up" into extended family groups. Coyotes make most of their livestock kills in the spring, attracted by newborn livestock. Housepet kills, Laufer said, are less of a problem. He said coyotes kill one cat for every 49 cats that are "run over or killed by a neighbor dog."

Sgt. Bill Heinck with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, who heads the agency's Mill Creek office, has spent much of his career dealing with problem predators in Eastern Washington. He said that are as big a problem as any wild animal.

In one case, he said a rancher reported that a bear was killing his livestock. Heinck investigated and found that a pack of dogs were the real perpetrators.

Heinck said he uses forensic evidence from the scene to identify livestock killers. He will skin a carcass and measure bite marks. Coyotes leave small bite marks, no bigger than an inch and a half wide. Coyotes also have a different killing style from dogs. Heinck said they kill and eat an animal efficiently, whereas dogs tend to "overkill" and often don't dine on the carcass afterward.

"Dogs are not predators that are skilled at killing," he said.

While coyotes have always been a problem for ranchers, Heinck said the highly intelligent animals are moving more and more into populated areas, even cities. A population lives in Los Angeles.

"They're here to stay," Heinck said.

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