Coyotes Prowl the Lowcountry

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HOW HILTON HEAD AND BLUFFTON BECAME COYOTE COUNTRY

Vicki Wood didn’t know that there were coyotes living on Hilton Head Island until last May. Her Norfolk terrier, Fletch, had a habit of escaping the electric fence that surrounded her backyard, so she’d had the fence moved so she could watch him better from the house. Then, at around 6:30 p.m. May 25, her son said he couldn’t see Fletch in the backyard.

Assuming he’d escaped again, Wood drove around looking for the dog. Not having any luck, she came home and went out to the backyard. Her Chinaberry Ridge property backs up to a wooded buffer that’s about 200 yards deep and ends at Katie Miller Drive. She heard a yipping sound coming from the woods, so she went inside to put on heavier clothes, and headed out to look for her dog. By the time Wood was dressed and entering the buffer, it was quiet.

“I had a weird feeling like something was wrong,” she said. Her son and husband, who were searching with her, said they saw movement in two different places. Then, when she was about 30 yards in, she heard heavy panting. When Woods got to Fletch, she said he was almost ripped in half, but he was alive.

The family rushed Fletch to the emergency vet in Savannah. Wood’s first thought was that he’d been attacked by a wild boar, but the vet said it looked like the work of another dog. Whatever it was had attacked his hind end, Wood said, and the collar from the electric fence probably saved his life because it protected the dog’s throat.

When they got home, Wood and her husband went out in the woods to look around. That’s when they saw the coyotes.

Wood called the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, who told her to shoot the coyotes on sight. But that didn’t help because it’s illegal to discharge a firearm within town limits on Hilton Head. When Wood called the Town of Hilton Head Island, officials told her they knew about the coyotes and suggested she call a wildlife control company.

Coyotes are notoriously difficult to catch in a live trap, and other trapping methods are tricky or inhumane. Wood said she’d researched several methods that involve a slow and painful death for the coyote.

“Even though they did this to our dog, we can’t bring ourselves to do that,” Wood said. Plus, getting rid of one coyote only leaves room for another coyote to move into that area.

Coyotes, though not native to the Lowcountry, have been in the area for decades. Like all wildlife, they are elusive and tend to avoid people. But they tolerate human presence in their environment, which means they can live almost anywhere, including suburban Hilton Head and Bluffton.

“The more people who move to the area, and the more developments that are built, the less open space the coyotes have and the greater the chance of encountering them,” said Matt Kraycar, owner of K&K Wildlife. “But they’re afraid of people, and you can often scare them away by making noise.”

Coyotes are most active at dusk and at night. They have a keen sense of smell, which makes trapping them even more difficult, and good eyesight. According to DNR, a resident coyote may have a home range from 2 to 20 square miles, and they can travel several miles within this range daily. They tend to hunt alone or in pairs, and may form family groups with pups from previous and current years. Coyotes are most active during their breeding season, which occurs in February and March.

Coyotes are opportunistic feeders. They prey on small mammals and rodents, like rabbits and occasionally deer fawns, but they will eat almost anything. Coyotes have a bad reputation in agricultural communities for preying on poultry and livestock. Along the Lowcountry coast, coyotes often eat sea turtle nests. And in suburban environments, they take advantage of human food sources, like garbage and pet bowls. According to DNR, coyotes can prey on domestic pets in suburban environments where they lack other prey. Coyotes are also territorial, and may attack pets for that reason.

“We have some coyotes, but so far we haven’t had any conflicts with people or pets,” said Peter Kristian, general manager of Hilton Head Plantation. He’s been the general manager for 19 years, and though he said he’s notice a rise in calls related to coyotes in recent years, he said he’s seen nothing that indicates any problems. And the plantation monitors coyotes the same way it monitors all the other wildlife in the area, like alligators, raccoons and opossums.

“Many people find Hilton Head attractive because of the flora and fauna, and its unspoiled character,” Kristian said. “Coyotes are a part of that.”

Cohabitating with coyotes — and any wildlife — means using caution, Kraycar said. Don’t leave pet food out, and don’t let your pets run around at night unsupervised. When you walk at night, carry a flashlight and something to make noise to scare coyotes away. And be aware of their presence and the potential risks.

Miraculously, Fletch survived his coyote encounter, and, aside from some scars, he’s doing fine, Wood said. But she no longer uses the electric fence. Her kids don’t play in the backyard unsupervised, and if the dog is out, they are too.

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KNOW THE COYOTE

Coyotes typically weigh between 30 to 45 pounds and stand 23 to 26 inches tall at the shoulder. They are monogamous, breeding in the late winter, and have litters of five to seven pups. Coyotes can travel far and fast, reaching speeds of 40 mph. They are good communicators, “talking” to each other with howls, yips and barks. Coyotes can be hunted in South Carolina throughout the year with a valid hunting license.