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Coyote population rises in York County, but the 'ghosts of the woods' are mostly unseen

Written by Frank Bodani, York Daily Record | Mar 23, 2015 7:22 AM
coyote ydr 600.jpg

Photo by Kate Penn, York Daily Record / Sunday News

Brett Spangler, left, holds a coyote pelt up to two others held by Josh Dennis of East Berlin at Spangler's home in East Manchester Township. Spangler traps animals, including coyotes, and sells their fur. The coyote population is growing in York County and across Pennsylvania.

(York) -- It's as if they live amid shadows, seemingly invisible at times.  

Often, the only evidence left behind are tracks in the snow ... flashes on trail cameras ... road kill carcasses quickly cleaned to the bone.  

Sometimes, their unnerving cries pierce the night air.  

Coyotes are here, even all around at times.  

Take it from Kelly Lowe, who has spent evenings sitting in the cold, in spots bordering forest and field near his home in East Manchester Township, a few miles from Mount Wolf.

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Photo by Kate Penn, York Daily Record / Sunday News

Brett Spangler shows two traps, one for a fox, at left, and the other for a coyote, at his home in East Manchester Township. Spangler traps animals, including coyotes, and sells their fur.

 

He hunts coyotes and is fascinated by them -- their unique blend of predator, scavenger, survivor -- and how they're populating York County and the entire state like never before.  

They've created enough simmering controversy that the Pennsylvania Game Commission initiated a $1.1 million study in January to learn more about their impact (as well as that of bears and bobcats) on the whitetail deer population. It's the first study of its kind in 15 years.  And the target is an animal most don't even realize is around.

* * * 

The hunters were the ones being stalked, in a sense.

It happened when Darin Hosier and Jake Clevenger were trying to call in fox during a winter night's hunt near Mount Wolf.

Soon enough, they spotted a pair of red eyes on a ridge, maybe 75 yards away.

Then they disappeared.

A bit later, the men saw the eyes again -- coyote eyes -- to their left, a bit farther away. The coyote was circling them downwind, armed with arguably the best combination of sight, vision and smell around. It would not show itself before being sure.

Moments later it vanished for good, without a sound.

"As soon as they smell you, they know what you are and they're gone," said Clevenger, a Spring Garden Township police officer who has become an avid coyote hunter in the past few years.

"And they're always on the move. They never stop for very long."

Coyotes are elusive enough that regular outdoorsmen rarely earn more than a brief, chance sighting.

That's part of the intrigue for Clevenger and Red Lion's Hosier, who lead the Pennsylvania Predators Hunters Association. Those like them hunt and trap coyotes for their fur, for the challenge and also to help limit their numbers. They try to call them close, using a machine to mimic their barks, yips and howls. Some speak as if simply seeing Pennsylvania's second-largest predator is a privilege; others view them as a nuisance.

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Photo by Kate Penn, York Daily Record / Sunday News

Brett Spangler uses a fleshing knife to remove the fat from the skin of a coyote at his home in East Manchester Township.

In 20 outings last winter, Lowe, 48, said he saw only two coyotes, one of which he shot and killed. More often, he hears them on just the right night, especially when the fire sirens in Mount Wolf blare and ignite a chorus of calls.

So it might be shocking that the game commission estimates that nearly 41,000 coyotes were killed by hunters and trappers in Pennsylvania in 2013 -- a record harvest for the third-straight year and part of an ever-growing trend. That includes more than 600 coyotes killed in York and Lancaster counties combined.

Then, consider this: Though they can be legally hunted every week of the year, and without limit, their numbers continue to rise. It's an unheard of combination, said Tom Hardisky, a biologist with the game commission.

Coyotes are everywhere, in a sense, and yet where are they?

"They're kind of like the ghosts of the woods. Unless they're howling like crazy in mating season, you don't even know they're here," said Josh Dennis, a 30-year-old science teacher at Dover Area Intermediate School who uses cable restraints -- woven-wire snares -- to capture coyotes.

Said Brett Spangler, a life-long outdoorsman in Mount Wolf: "When you have traps they'll go right by them, won't even break stride. It's almost like they know you're there."

"To me, they're the smartest thing in Pennsylvania," said Mike Ellis, a wildlife pest control specialist who works all of York County.

And yet, in certain circles, they also have become detested.

The hot-point coyote debate centers on their impact -- whether legitimate or overblown -- on the state's prized deer population.

The growing drumbeat among hunters is that coyotes are taking more fawns all the time, eventually meaning fewer deer to go around. By far, deer are the biggest player in the state's estimated $1.6 billion hunting industry.

"Anything killing off the deer population, other than hunters, is a problem in my book," said Hosier, 35.

For now, at least, he and other hunters admit that coyotes seem to be doing more damage to the deer population in the northern reaches of the state. There, coyotes are longer entrenched, their numbers are greater and it's more difficult for them to find other food in the bigger woods and more desolate terrain.

Take Clinton County, where Clevenger, 47, regularly hunts deer. He doesn't believe it's a coincidence how deer herds there are increasingly smaller while coyote sightings continue to rise.

"I think it's going to get that way very quickly in the southern end of the state," he said.

And yet others maintain that coyotes don't kill enough deer, young or old, to make a significant dent in the population.

"Yeah, they can take fawns and can even take an adult deer. But the truth of the matter is that they take very few," said Hardisky of the game commission. "Areas that are low in deer population, coyotes often get blamed."

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Rodney McFarland, center, of East Manchester Township, and Josh Dennis of East Berlin, right, chat while Brett Spangler prepares a fox hide to dry in a hut next to Spangler's home in East Manchester Township. (Kate Penn, York Daily Record / Sunday News)

Rather, Hardisky notes how coyotes are more scavengers and small-time hunters by nature. Their favorite prey are mice, voles, rabbits and groundhogs. They even graze on grasshoppers as they lope through thick summer fields, and eat nuts and berries, if necessary. They raid garbage cans on the edge of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and will eat dog and cat food left on porches and patios in suburban housing developments.

They have made themselves known, from time to time, in New York City's Central Park.

The thing is, coyotes didn't always populate York County or even the state, according to game commission officials. They say that, a century ago, coyotes in the Midwest spread north and eventually bred with timber wolves, possibly as an instinct to boost dipping populations.

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The emerging coyote hybrids eventually pushed across the southern reaches of Canada and down into the Adirondack Mountains of New York. From there, they began spreading through Pennsylvania by the 1940s and '50s, and were reported in every county by the early 1990s.

It wasn't until the past 10 to 15 years, however, that sightings here were prevalent enough to get people talking. Now, there are even coyote "hot spots" where they seem to congregate and run in larger numbers, such as north of York along the Susquehanna River, stretching west around Manchester, Lewisberry and Dover.

Coyotes' adaptability appears unrivaled, to the point they can even increase litter size to offset disease and extermination attempts. They can live alone or in packs. They are nocturnal, which usually keeps them out of sight.

They also are standout swimmers and runners, equally capable of chasing down prey in 40-mph bursts or traveling dozens of miles at a time to find new territory.

The Eastern coyote, which is larger than its Western cousin, averages 30 to 40 pounds and is comparable to a medium-sized dog.

"They're the one species we'll never be able to control or eradicate in any way," Hardisky said. "We've already spent millions of dollars poisoning them, shooting them, and trapping them year-round -- and they're still here. It's a survivor."

There are now bounties on coyotes and organized money hunts in Pennsylvania and other states. Nearly 4,000 paid entrance fees to join February's Mosquito Creek Sportsmen's coyote hunt in Clearfield County, the largest in the state. There were 162 coyotes killed over the weekend, with one hunter earning nearly $11,000 for his work.

* * * 

The Heindel family farm is in Newberry Township, a few highway exits north of York.

They say coyotes recently killed two of their pet geese, leaving tracks and a pile of feathers and bones as evidence.

Not long afterward, West York High senior Drew Heindel met a coyote there most unexpectedly in the middle of the afternoon: While fox hunting last month, he and two friends were startled by a yearling doe sprinting toward them as she cleared a hill.

A coyote was closing in from behind.

Heindel and his two buddies fired on the 30-pound coyote with their 12-gauge shotguns and brought her down. Heindel also has seen coyotes while hunting near Thomasville.

"I definitely think they're a nuisance," he said. "We should be trying to get rid of them because of the threat to domesticated animals, to cats and dogs."

And yet, once again, the coyotes' impact differs depending on who you talk to.

Mike Ellis not only runs a wildlife pest control business but also is the animal control officer for 11 York County municipalities. That means he deals daily with pets who are reportedly abused, abandoned or a danger to others.

"Locally, it's not happening," he said of coyotes targeting cats and dogs in peoples' yards. Most at risk, he said, are feral cats in more rural areas.

Terry Mattive and his family operate T&D Cats of the World, a wildlife refuge in Penns Creek, 50 miles north of Harrisburg. While he is known best for his exotics, such as lions and tigers, he also cares for a handful of coyotes.

Mattive has lived there for three decades but said only in the past few years has he begun routinely hearing wild coyotes and seeing their tracks around his woods.

He believes their population boost is a good thing so far.

"They eat anything that's easy to get, the sick, the weak, the dying. They're the Shop-Vacs of mother nature," he said.

Mattive is convinced coyotes aren't hurting deer populations or doing much damage to farmers and pet owners. His proof is around his home: His goats, sheep, peacocks, chickens and ducks continue to roam freely and without incident.

"We have 300-plus pigeons. It's a buffet, with a nice variety, and I can't say I've lost (anything) to coyotes.

"They're finding enough out there that they don't need to come here. This would be easy pickings "

Actually, Pennsylvania may be one of the most welcoming locations for coyotes because of a moderate climate and an abundance of small mammals for food.

Even so, these ghosts of the woods rarely offer more than glimpses and chance encounters, which seems to enhance their success.

Tracks in the snow and mud.

Flashes on unmanned trail cameras.

Brief, hazy sunset sightings in a field or along train tracks.

"I have a lot of admiration for coyotes," said Dennis, the Dover middle school teacher. "If the world comes to the end, everyone says the cockroach will be the only thing left. But I also say coyotes."

Contact Frank Bodani at 771-2104.

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Photo by Kate Penn, York Daily Record / Sunday News

Fox and coyote furs hang from the ceiling of a small hut next to Brett Spangler's home in East Manchester Township.

What makes coyotes unique?

  1. Coyote numbers are at an all-time high despite, for example, the federal Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services killing 75,326 coyotes in fiscal year 2013.
  2. These standout swimmers have colonized the Elizabeth Islands of Massachusetts and Tiburon Island off Baja California.
  3. They exist in every state except Hawaii. They are found from Panama to northern Alaska.
  4. They are known to use badgers in helping them catch ground squirrels. The badgers' digging chases the squirrels from dens -- where the coyotes are waiting.
  5. They can hear hunters a mile away and can avoid detection by walking silently on the tips of their toes. They use their sense of smell to find prey moving below the snow.

Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian National Zoo, National Trappers Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, SoftSchools.com, biokids.umich.edu, Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo


This article comes to us through a partnership between York Daily Record and WITF. 

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