ORANGE COUNTY — Along residential streets in Carrboro, sidewalks in Chapel Hill, parks and paths in daylight and dusk in every neighborhood across Orange County, coyotes have been everywhere in our area for decades, and the population is growing.
There have also been increased sightings of smaller and more elusive red foxes, especially in the creek-side greenways that lace the area.
The success of wild canids locally is part of a nation-wide resurgence as the savvy creatures and humans learn to coexist. North Carolina is a leading state in that evolution. Coyotes are found in all 100 counties, and the state is the pioneer in the recovery of the indigenous red wolf.
Chapel Hill and Carrboro police refer all coyote-related calls to the Orange County Animal Service (OCAS) which will respond or direct the caller to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Helpline, 1-866-318-2401.
“We receive many coyote sighting calls,” said Tenille Fox, communications specialist OCAS. “I can say we are seeing them in more places like Southern Village and urban areas than before.” OCAS only gets involved if a coyote has attacked a domestic animal, or where rabies could become an issue.
According to the wildlife commission, it “will not remove, trap or shoot a coyote. The commission’s helpline will offer advice and assistance on co-existing with them.”
Coyotes are native to the United States, but they have expanded their range across the southeast in recent decades, according to Southern Piedmont Natural History. They have proven to be some of the most adaptable animals to different environments in the world. A story in Outbound explains the animals “can live anywhere: grasslands, forests, mountains, deserts and even within the boundaries of major cities.”
Coyotes are adaptable and opportunistic. They will eat practically anything, but their main diet is small rodents, fruit, deer, rabbit, snakes, and frogs. In urban areas, they also eat garbage, road kill, and unsupervised small pets, according to the Urban Coyote Research Project. The state used to be home to a widespread population of the larger but less adaptable red wolves. The red wolf is now critically endangered because of hunting, and coyotes have largely stepped in to replace them.
Social media sites like Nextdoor have recent accounts of encounters“I was walking my large dog around 4 p.m., and a coyote was crossing our residential road about 10 feet away,” said a poster on Nextdoor in Carrboro last week. “It just looked at us and walked away.”
Coyotes’ mating season spans from January to March, and they become more mobile and defensive of their territory. Females usually give birth from late March to May. They are most active dusk to dawn, and when spotted, they are usually passing through part of their territory. But as the WRC has noted, they have learned to associate people with food and become less fearful of humans.
Female coyotes usually have four to six pups, but can increase their litter size to 12 or more if the population has decreased. That trait allows them to manage their numbers, balancing the population with the carrying capacity of the area, according to the Urban Coyote Research project. While protecting their young, coyotes are more active and will defend their den, according to the WRC.
“We know that when people try to eliminate coyotes by trapping or hunting, it does not work,” Fox said, adding coyotes trapped and removed typically return within weeks, replaced by other transient populations that are probably less fearful of people.
Humane Society of the United States North Carolina Director Gail Thomssen said coyotes are established in every state except Hawaii.
“Awareness is key to reducing conflict,” Thomssen said. “For example, don’t leave small pets unattended in your yard. If you do see a coyote in your yard, haze it: yell at it, throw tennis balls at it, pester it.”
Thomssen reiterated trapping or killing the animals is counterproductive and the traps pose a risk to children, pets and other wildlife.
The HSUS website has several concise one-page guides to co-existing with coyotes.
In spite of the science, a bill in the state legislature, HB 371, would expand trapping of foxes and coyotes from the current few western counties to almost all of the state: all counties on or west of Interstate 95. It would repeal local laws against trapping, and there would be no limit in season. To put that into perspective: under existing regulations 27,000 hunters killed 45,300 coyotes statewide during the 2021-22 season, according to WRC.
On a more positive note, Thomssen said she is proud that North Carolina is home to the only wild population of red wolves in the country. That program is operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on several sites around the Albemarle Peninsula.
The program has waxed and waned over the decades, said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, based in Columbia.
“Lately we have seen a strong resurgence,” she said. The FWS has committed new resources and the program is back on track in a big way. I feel very encouraged.”There are only 12 collared and tracked red wolves in the program according to an April count by FWS, with another few estimated uncollared. There are 235 red wolves under human care in programs to breed and prepare animals for release. Another 45 red wolves are in zoos and nature centers, including the nearby Durham Museum of Life and Science.
FWS is holding public meetings — May 9 on site, and May 10 online — to provide information about the red wolf program. The phase of adding animals to the wild population is expected soon “There is room on the landscape for more wolves,” said Wheeler. We have to get it right here in North Carolina before we think about anywhere else.”
Editor’s note: A sentence in this story has been updated to reflect that traps, rather than coyotes, are a threat to children, pets and other wildlife.