Credit: Stephanie Rudig

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You might have seen a dog-like creature in the dead of night and wondered: Exactly what species am I looking at? To trained eyes and ears, a coyote gives itself away—bigger than a fox and smaller than a wolf, a narrow snout and sinewy body, a black-tipped tail hanging downward, an unmistakable yip.

Longtime D.C. resident Megan Draheim is the founder of the recently launched District Coyote Project, which provides information to area residents about the local coyote population and how to coexist with them. Draheim is on the faculty at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability in Arlington, where she teaches in the natural resource management master’s program. Her project examines coyote ecology and human-coyote interactions, providing extensive information and resources on its website about what you should do if you see a coyote.

“I had been wanting to do a local project because I’ve been in the D.C. area for 23 or 24 years now. But we didn’t have enough coyotes at that point to do a project that would’ve given me enough robust data to work with them.” 

The lack of coyotes is not a problem today.

A National Park Service employee first officially sighted a coyote in Rock Creek Park in the early 2000s, she says. So, they’ve likely been moving through the area dating back a little longer than that. “The mid-Atlantic region is the last part of the contiguous 48 states that coyotes have gotten to,” she says. “And D.C. is kind of in the heart of the mid-Atlantic region, so we’re really one of the last places they’re coming to. They’re really relatively recent arrivals here but they got here on their own. It’s a natural range expansion on their part.” 

Coyotes have been able to thrive here for a couple of reasons, Draheim says. One is that humans have gotten rid of all the larger predators in the eastern part of the country. There are no mountain lions, no wolves, no other top-level predators that tend to suppress coyote populations. Coyotes are our new apex predator, the largest predator living in urban areas in terms of animals that are residential, she says, though mountain lions and bears do come into urban areas occasionally.

Humans also provide an excellent habitat for coyotes. Many coyotes’ diets consist of rodents and rabbits, animals in abundant supply around humans. In fact, urban coyotes tend to have smaller home ranges than rural coyotes because the abundance of resources is so much higher in cities.

This fall, the District Coyote Project’s five-person team started a citizen science initiative on its website in which people can report sightings of coyotes and foxes. The results appear as pins on a map of the region. 

So what do we know about the coyotes we live with? Not much—yet. There are endless questions, Draheim says. How many of them live here? What are their eating habits here? Where in the area do they live? All questions hard to answer, though some answers seem to be more attainable than others. 

Population estimates do not come easily. “We have no idea about D.C.,” she says. “It’s one of the things we’re hoping to look at and address with this project but no work has been done yet. In terms of the U.S., I’ve never seen an estimate. I think it would be quite hard to do because their territories range in size so much. I think that’s a really challenging number to come up with.” 

The new citizen science project will help to give Draheim and team members a better idea of where local people are seeing these animals. One Falls Church woman did find the elusive, skittish creature at night right in her own backyard on a camera trap photo—a picture captured with a motion sensor-triggered camera. She sent it in to Draheim to post on the project’s website. Draheim says what she’s seen in other cities is that coyotes tend to stick to larger green spaces, so here that would mean places like Rock Creek, the Arboretum, and Kenilworth Park, including golf courses and cemeteries. Some coyotes, though, live with no green spaces. “I heard recently somebody saw a coyote crossing his yard on Michigan Avenue,” she says. “So they do come out of the parks, and that’s one of the things we’re hoping to learn: how they use D.C. as habitat, how they’re interacting with our fox populations.”

The Chicago area is home to both a wealth of coyotes and the Urban Coyote Research Project, which has been tracking coyotes continuously for nearly 18 years. Stanley Gehrt, the principal investigator of the Cook County project, initiated the study in 2000. He currently serves as a professor and wildlife extension specialist at The Ohio State University.

“It’s hard to get numbers on coyotes in a single park sometimes,” Gehrt says. “They’re just so tricky and difficult to count. They’re very elusive and really smart.” Despite the difficulty, the project managed to do an analysis about 10 years ago, and at that time they found an estimated 2,000 coyotes living in Cook County, a conservative estimate as pups don’t get counted until they are about a year old. Today, he says, the number is probably double that, again as a very conservative estimate. 

The Chicago project is more invasive, using radio collars to follow and track the animals. “Being able to reliably follow and track these animals allows us to also follow other things, such as any kind of disease that might be in the population or other forms of mortality that you wouldn’t be able to document through any other means,” he says. “If an animal dies from distemper, it would be very hard to document that unless you have them radio collared.”

The Chicago project serves as a model for other cities attempting similar research. “I get that question a lot from other cities, like how can they do something similar to this,” he says. “The thing is, it’s kind of a unique situation in Chicago where the county itself has such a large population base that they have a lot of funds that they can use to apply to research like ours.” 

The way to begin, he says, is citizen science. Starting off with noninvasive approaches and engaging the public is a first step that, despite limits to information, is valuable. Citizen science is a great way for communities to get involved with wildlife research efforts, and ultimately, conservation. 

American University environmental science program master’s student Lindsay Powers wants to get involved in a big way. Powers is planning for her thesis to be a research project on urban coyotes in Rock Creek Park. Draheim, who did her master’s and PhD graduate work on coyotes, recently agreed to be on Powers’ thesis committee.

“I got my research permit this past summer to study in Rock Creek Park,” says Powers. “And so what that will involve is a camera trap study and scat analysis, hopefully starting in December and probably until July or August of next year.” 

“Scat” is animal droppings. Powers hopes to get camera trap footage of the coyotes that roam Rock Creek and analyze their droppings, which could help uncover a lot about the population, like possibly diet and disease information.

“Right now, the National Park Service doesn’t have a ton of information about the coyotes in Rock Creek Park, so my goal is to basically use camera traps and scat analysis to provide information that’s useful to them and also interesting to the public to help them learn more about coyotes,” she says. “It’s exciting to think that I can help lay a good foundation for some coyote knowledge. I love coyotes. They can coexist with humans and sometimes we may not even know they’re around us. There’s a lot to learn about them.”

She wants people to be comfortable with the wildlife around them, rather than fearful or neutral. As humans continue to spread out and develop more land, there will be more interactions between us and wildlife.

Draheim offers some rules for interacting with wildlife: Don’t feed coyotes, keep outdoor compost bins closed, bring outdoor pet food in, and if you see a coyote without pups in the city outside of green spaces, haze it—raise your arms up, wave them around, yell at the coyote, move toward the coyote to chase it away and keep it properly fearful of people. Most times, Draheim says, the coyote is going to scurry away. But don’t haze a coyote that appears sick or injured, or has pups—they are incredibly protective of their young. And keep your dogs and cats close to you and on leashes, as the coyote may see them as prey.

Draheim says humans kill huge numbers of coyotes each year in the United States. “Lethal control of coyotes, untargeted lethal control of coyotes, obviously doesn’t work because we’ve tried to kill them off since European settlers came across them in the West, and all that’s happened is of course now they live in the entire country—except for Hawaii, they haven’t quite figured that one out yet,” she says. 

They have found the cities and suburbs and urban green spaces, and they’re not going anywhere. 

“I think people often forget or don’t recognize that urban areas are actually part of nature, too,” Draheim says. “We have wildlife that lives around us and they treat cities just as they do any other habitat, just as they would out in a rural area. I think it’s easy for people to think of cities as human habitat only, and that wildlife doesn’t belong here—except maybe for songbirds and some animals that people look at very favorably. But in fact, it’s habitat for all of us—humans and wildlife.”