Although it was a record-setting year for sea turtles, coyote depredation of nests on Bald Head Island was more severe than originally reported.
Coyotes are being blamed for taking 2,088 loggerhead sea turtle eggs during the 2019 nesting season, about 12-percent of the total. According to the Bald Head Island Conservancy, 57 of the 170 nests were invaded by coyotes, with an average of two attempts per night.
A lower number – 400 lost eggs – was reported in October 2 Pilot edition, using available data from a seaturtle.org, state-sanctioned website. The site has not been updated but the Conservancy has since released current figures.
Some residents and property owners are concerned about the Village obtaining permits to trap and euthanize coyotes this winter. The Bald Head Association has agreed to hold a public information session on coyotes at a future unspecified date.
Conservancy scientists reported coyotes proved seriously problematic for turtle nests for the first time since intensive tagging and monitoring efforts began in 1983.
“We estimate at least two to four hours each night (276 person-hours from June 1 to August 31) were used specifically to patrol for coyotes, repair cages, attempt to rescue eggs and hatchlings, and apply extra fortification to each cage on the beach,” the Conservancy reported. “Our regular summer spotlight surveys have seen a four-fold increase in coyote sightings throughout the island compared to 2018, so we suspect the coyote population is growing, and individual coyotes have developed behaviors to navigate sea turtle nest cages (chewing, digging, and tunneling).”
The Conservancy tried a number of non-lethal ways to deter coyotes, including stronger, deeper cages, applying wolf urine around the nests and increasing patrols. Still, the canines persisted eating eggs practically every night.
Because sea turtles are federally listed as “threatened” and coyotes are legally considered an “invasive” species, the Conservancy turned to the Village, which sought and obtained trapping permits at the direction of Village Council.
Trappers will use soft leg-holds, not metal claws, so that non-target species such as raccoons can be safely released. Trapped coyotes will be euthanized by being shot. They cannot be legally relocated because they are considered invasive.
The trapping and euthanization plan has caused concerns on and off the island.
Shooting coyotes after trapping them with leg holds is hardly “Living in harmony with Nature,” the island’s mantra, some residents say.
“It’s horrific to most of us long-time residents on the island,” said Sandra H. Gleich, who’s been a full-time resident for 15 years. Gleich said she grew up in San Diego, California, where a coyote attacked her brother’s dog, and the pet survived. There have been no known attacks on people or pets on Bald Head, and Gleich said she believed there was a lot of misinformation about the threat coyotes could pose.
She said she feared the Village had rushed to judgment when all the facts are not yet known. Undue haste and acquisition of the depredation permit was done without sufficient public input, she said.
Gleich said she wanted more data and hoped the Village and Conservancy would explore other options, including better fortifying the cages around sea turtle nests.
“Coyotes are doing what top predators do,” Gleich said.
“It’s not the coyotes’ fault.”
The only proven way to reduce coyotes is to reduce their food source because females can and do adjust the birth of pups according to conditions, Gleich stated.
“I am definitely fundamentally opposed to trapping,” said Monika Satterwhite, a trained environmental and marine scientist who works in the area. “Torture should not be a wildlife management protocol.”
Satterwhite said she understood the need to protect sea turtles, but believed that any lethal control method for coyotes would ultimately be unsuccessful. When coyotes are removed from the environment, the remaining females tend to breed earlier and have more pups than usual. “They would probably have the same problem two or three seasons later,” she stated.
Satterwhite suggested that better fortified nest cages and possibly other methods of deterring the coyotes would be better than any lethal control method. She is also concerned about non-target species, including pets, birds and wild animals, being caught and injured by traps. In many places, coyotes have taken the place of apex predators that have been eliminated.
The 12-percent egg loss blamed on coyotes on Bald Head is about on par with what might naturally be expected, Satterwhite added.
“I just think there are better management practices,” she said.
“They don’t seem to have enough information to declare they want to eliminate this species,” said Larry Kirby, who has lived on the island for 15 years.
“I support what they are trying to do with the turtles,” Kirby said, and suggested there may be a way to co-exist with coyotes that does not include shooting them with small-caliber handguns.
“We’re supposed to be living with nature, not fighting it,” he said. He added that more evidence is required before the Village and Conservancy trap coyotes. As top-end predators, coyotes could play a role in controlling mice and invasive rat species.
Kirby suggested the Village conduct a survey to determine coyote numbers and use results to help make management decisions. “I want to see more detailed evidence,” he stated.
N.C. Wildlife Commission biologist Becky Skiba said the interaction between coyotes and other species is complicated. There are steps residents can take to manage coyotes, including bringing pets inside at night and eliminating outside food sources. Skiba plans to meet with residents at an unspecified date to discuss the issue.
The plan is in line with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s official state coyote management plan. It states, in part:
“The impacts of coyotes on non-game species are not greatly studied but are becoming more concerning, especially as coyote populations expand into coastal areas that serve as nesting grounds for shore and seabirds as well as sea turtles. Many of these species are identified as species of greatest conservation need and some are specifically Federally listed as threatened or endangered. While long-term impact of nest predation on these taxa groups has not been studied in detail along the Atlantic coast thus far, evidence exist that as coyotes move into these habitats and establish themselves as a new and novel resident predator, they are likely having a significant impact on nest success. Targeted removal of coyotes in these areas is and will continue to be an important component of all efforts to conserve and promote these shore nesting species until a greater understanding of these relationships is developed.
“Because many species that nest on islands along the Atlantic Coast are species of greatest conservation need, and the Piping Plover is federally listed as threatened, as are sea turtle species, management actions are necessary to increase their survival and productivity. Thus, properly timed and targeted removal of coyotes from islands with these nesting species is needed.”
Other nest losses this year were from astronomically high tides and Hurricane Dorian.
Still, the Conservancy believes that roughly 8,000 hatchlings survived and made it to sea.
The state coyote management plan also addresses attacks on people and pets.
“In a recent review of coyote attacks on humans from 1970-2015, Baker and Timm (2017) documented 367 attacks by non-rabid coyotes in the United States and Canada, two of which were fatal. In comparison, 4.5 million dog bites occur nationwide annually, with 800,000 requiring medical attention; in 2016, 31 dog bites resulted in fatalities. North Carolina ranks 14th in dog bite incidences, with 77 dog bite claims to insurance companies in 2016 (Bennett 2017). Most coyote attacks on humans have occurred in California and other urbanized areas in western states.”
The report recommends bringing cats indoors at night and supervising cats and dogs when they are outdoors, particularly at night.
It also offered these tips for people who encounter coyotes:
• Do not approach a coyote. Remain a safe and respectful distance from the animal.
• Always supervise small children when outdoors, and remind them not to approach coyotes or other animals.
• Don’t be intimidated by a coyote. Make noise and let the coyote know that it is not welcome near you. Throwing small objects such as rocks or tennis balls can encourage the animal to leave the area.
• Avoid areas where coyotes have dens and/or young. Coyotes will defend their pups, especially against domestic dogs, if you come too close.
• If you encounter an extremely aggressive or sick coyote (stumbling, listless, drooling excessively) contact your local Animal Control for immediate assistance. Coyotes can contract diseases such as rabies and canine distemper. Commission staff work cooperatively with citizens and other government agencies to address situations where lethal removal is required.”
The Village plan on coyotes may be found online at http://bit.ly/BHIcoyotes.