THE FLORIDA CATTLEMAN AND LIVESTOCK JOURNAL
THE FLORIDA CATTLEMAN AND LIVESTOCK JOURNAL
Cracker Coyotes: Facts and Impacts
For questions or comments regarding this publication contact: Dr. Raoul Boughton, University of Florida, IFAS
The 38 cattle respondents are responsible for managing 106049 acres upon which there is approximately 21500 head of cattle. Of these, 28 answered yes to the question of “Do coyotes attack livestock on your ranch?” What surprised me was that the 43% of ranchers who answered yes had observed a direct attack or kill by a coyote. What is more typical is the 90% who find indirect evidence, such as, coyote at carcass, drug carcass, bite marks, evisceration or coyote footprints and sign.
The age of cattle attacked was broad, but nearly all attacks occurred between birthing and 21 days of age (Figure 1). Therefore attacks are most likely during the main calving season in Florida, fall and spring, which is supported by respondent’s answers to when they observe attacks; being lowest in summer and increasing during peak calving season (Figure 2). I also asked if respondents could remember when they first observed or encountered livestock suspected of being attacked by coyotes. Although some of our memories are short, there does seem to have been an increase during the last five years, with 65% of responders recalling their first coyote attack occurring sometime after 2007 (Figure 3). If we combine this with some previous data collected by IFAS regarding percent of ranchers reporting suspected coyote attacks the trend is similar with increasing observation of suspected coyote attacks over the last 20 years (Figure 4). Furthermore, when asked the question “Coyotes have increased or I see or hear more coyotes in my area than 10 years ago?” an overwhelming 98% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. This suggests that coyote populations have increased in many areas.
Even though coyote interactions with livestock are very obviously occurring we don’t know how often and it is difficult to assess. Because coyotes are a relatively small dog usually between 24-42lbs in Florida as adults, attacks upon calves are most likely to occur when they young, as supported by questionnaire results. From ranchers and veterinarians, we continue to receive reports of calves presumed to have been killed by coyotes by the signs seen on or around carcasses. Coyote calf kills seemingly occur sporadically rather than on a regular basis in most locations, although, there are places where coyotes, during the breeding season, have killed multiple calves. The difficulty in assessing the true impact of coyotes comes from whether a calf was actually killed by a coyote or scavenged after dying from other causes.
There is a proportion of calf loss (especially on large more open range ranches) where cause of death is unknown. We want to try and ascertain the proportion of early calf loss that may be due to coyotes, but this is very difficult to do, since you have to rapidly find the calf bodies. Furthermore, the ecology of coyotes in Florida is not well studied. We want to understand what the home range of the Florida coyote is, how often they are around cattle compared to other activities, how far do they travel in search of food, and do they change their behavior when calving season occurs. We are currently answering some of these questions by tracking coyote movements on and off ranches using GPS collars, combined with local ranch information of herd and calving locations. We initiated this study during November of 2014 and have captured and GPS-collared 15 coyotes on three ranches supporting the effort: Cary Lightsey of Lightsey Cattle Company, Gene Lollis of MacArthur Agro-Ecology Research Center and Buck-Island Ranch, and Jim Strickland at Black Beards Ranch. The study would not have been possible without the technical and equipment support of Dr Stewart Breck, Dr Michael Avery and Eric Tillman of the USDA National Wildlife Research Center, trapper Ralph Pfister of the Adams Ranch, and my research assistant Bethany Wight. Once captured, coyotes must be secured with muzzle and hobbled to keep researcher and coyote free of injury during the workup stage where we apply a GPS collar and collect samples (Figure 5).
By May 2015 we will have recovered our GPS collars and analyzed the data to show how coyotes change their behaviors during calving season and how often they disturb cattle herds and target calves that are a potential food source. We will record the time coyotes interact with cattle during calving and non-calving seasons and allow a fair assessment of their behaviors. If you would like to offer support for this research program please contact me at the Range Cattle REC, firstname.lastname@example.org, 863 735 1314 ext 216.
Across the USA coyotes have become an urban species and are known to prey upon smaller vertebrates, birds, cats, small dogs, rabbits, and rodents, which include people’s pets. Coyotes have also been documented at multiple locations digging up sea turtle nests along Florida beaches, and are known to readily kill fawns. They also are likely blamed unfairly for carcasses they have scavenged upon rather than directly hunted and killed. How often they are truly to blame is an important question to answer if we are to provide accurate recommendations. Is the coyote in the back pasture a real problem or should they now be viewed as part of Florida’s wildlife? I think they are becoming an increasing problem for Florida ranchers and when coyote’s learn that livestock are prey they should be controlled. But if you don’t have a history of calf death on your ranch shooting your resident coyotes will open up the area for a new group with unknown dinner tastes. Attempt to understand if a dead calf was killed or scavenged. Killed calves usually have a lot more bleeding, are often attacked around the head and often killed by a bite to the ventral side of the neck/throat, where canines puncture the skin and enter deeply into subcutaneous tissue, they will also often be eviscerated. Coyotes may also take calves down from behind and latch onto the tail. Like many predators the relationship with prey is often dependent on how hard it is to acquire and if the predator has learned successful capture techniques, this is when a problem occurs and persists.
I am often asked a number of questions about coyotes in Florida. Yes, coyotes are part of the dog family and can interbreed with dogs and wolves. There have been coyote-dog crosses observed in Florida, and we know that coyotes have interbred with both the red wolf and the timber wolf although currently we do not know if coyote-wolf crosses are part of the lineage of the coyotes now found in Florida. Florida and eastern coyotes are larger than western coyotes, which may be one reason we are starting to see more attacks upon calves in Florida. Their increased size may be due to more reliable and higher quality food resources and/or a genetic predisposition because of outcrossing with wolves and dogs.
I deem coyotes not to be a native to Florida although there is fossil evidence that a coyote like dog was present in Florida in the Pliocene (2 million years ago). The extirpation of the red wolf by 1920 and deforestation of eastern forests provided habitat suitable for coyotes to expand eastward across the Mississippi and then south into Florida. This indirect human assisted coyote range expansion may also have been supplemented by several known coyote release, 2 in Palm Beach County (1925), 26 in DeSoto County (1925-1931), and 11 in Gadsden County (1940s). Coyotes have also been noted in Polk County since 1970 shortly after several were released by a local fox hunter. Coyotes are now found in all 67 counties of Florida, and are found in a wide range of habitats. They have readily adapted to using human modified landscapes and in other states where tens of thousands of coyotes have been removed they continue to persist. Eradication is very unlikely, therefore development and adoption of the most reliable control efforts and prevention techniques in sensitive areas is needed.
Yes, if you have a coyote issue you are allowed to legally remove them. Coyotes are classified as furbearers regarding license and tagging requirements and as such, coyotes may be taken throughout the year using gun, bow, dogs, live traps or snares. However, possession and transport of live coyotes is prohibited unless authorized through a captive wildlife permit from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). There are several general FWC regulations that affect taking coyotes. No permit is needed to kill coyotes causing damage to personal property, and a landowner may use traps and snares (excluding steel traps) on their own property to catch coyotes. Hunting coyotes at night using a gun and light is allowed on private property with land owner permission, but trapping coyotes with steel traps requires a special permit from FWC. The use of any poison is illegal.
Figure 1: Age at which cattle were observed killed by coyotes (direct and indirect). Y-axis is a respondent who answered yes for that age category. For example 85% of respondents state that newborn calves have been attacked.
Figure 2: Month in which respondents observed calves suspected of being attacked by coyotes.
Figure 3: Ranchers reporting the first time they remember seeing calves suspected of being attacked by coyotes.
Figure 4: Percent of responders to surveys that observed or suspected coyote attacks on calves. No information collected between 1998 and 2013. Single data point 2104 survey respondents.
Figure 5: Dr. Boughton securing a coyote from trap, muzzling, and attaching a GPS collar and taking samples. Photo credit: Leslie Gaines, Jeff Palmer and Steve Neville