It happened quickly and quietly. In fact, it was the silence that made David Brosh wonder why the family’s two white Westies, taking a quick bedtime potty break, hadn’t barked to come back inside.
On a frigid Sunday night in early December, he let them into the tiny yard behind their Parker home. It was dark until Chloe and Chuffy’s presence activated the motion-sensor floodlights. Beyond the 42-inch split-rail fence, webbed with wire fencing so the dogs wouldn’t get out, a large swath of open space near Newlin Gulch had been blanketed by a recent snow.
Minutes later, when David stepped outside to check on the dogs, a coyote turned to meet his gaze — just as it trotted into the shadows beyond the reach of the floodlights. It appeared to have Chloe, all 17 pounds of her, in its mouth.
David grabbed a flashlight, hopped the fence and followed the tracks as far as he could into the gulch, until they mixed with lots of other tracks and disappeared into some low brush. No sign of Chloe. When he returned to the yard, he saw 25-pound Chuffy lying in the snow, seriously injured. He called to his wife, Mardee, that they needed to get to the vet.
From there, the hours unraveled in a nightmare of tenuous hope for Chuffy’s survival from his neck wounds and the continued search for Chloe that yielded little more than a trail of reddish splotches in the snow.
Daylight revealed what looked like tracks from two coyotes in the Broshes’ yard. Meanwhile, surgery on Chuffy ended with a hopeless diagnosis. The couple made the decision to put him down.
“They were the heart of our family,” Mardee says, “and got me through so many difficult times. You know, you get really attached to your dogs.”
On top of their sorrow, word of similar coyote encounters throughout the rapidly growing community southeast of Denver heightened the couple’s concern. They’ve lived in their house for more than eight years and perhaps twice have seen coyotes venture this close — until suddenly, reports of sightings, and particularly attacks on dogs, have spiked.
Wildlife experts say the situation reflects a recurring phenomenon, a cycle of coyote activity that ebbs and flows throughout the so-called urban-wildland interface — and now, well into the urban core — literally from Los Angeles to New York.
“It does seem periodic,” says Kristin Cannon, an area wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We’ll go several years where there’s no issues, or very minor ones. Coyotes are pretty ubiquitous anymore, but as far as conflicts with people, and with pets, that seems to flare up every few years one place or another. Because conflicts are so common, it’s hard to quantify.”
Many communities along the Front Range have an official coyote management plan, which largely defines levels of interaction with the animals and prescribes at what point, and how, action may be taken to mitigate problems.
Attacks on humans tend to be the tipping point. And while lethal removal looms as an available tool, the emphasis remains on education and adapting human behavior. That strategy reflects the reality that coyotes, despite historical campaigns to eradicate them, have been a fixture on the continent for upwards of five million years.
And they’re not going away. As longtime coyote researcher Dan Flores, author of “Coyote America,” succinctly puts it: “Resistance is futile.”
From Twain until Disney, coyotes cast as the bad guys
The flurry of coyote activity in and around Parker marks yet another chapter of a centuries-long conversation surrounding the uncommonly adaptable creatures, one that ranges from today’s real-time online postings to historical writings that freighted it with cultural meaning.
It’s been an animated dialogue, in every sense.
Early periods of enthusiastic hostility toward the animal have dissolved into more recent arguments for coexistence. European explorers scouting the West initially didn’t know what to make of coyotes, or even what to call them. From that uncertainty, the coyote eventually became a fixture in American culture, for better and worse.
In many Native American cultures, the coyote appears as an avatar for humans. Tales handed down through generations employ it as a four-legged metaphor, precisely for the way it holds a mirror to human behavior. Native to North America, the coyote’s howl, Flores contends, is “our original national anthem.”
In early America, the disparagement of coyotes grew from the cross-pollination of politics and culture. Flores traced references to coyotes in 19th-century American literature and settled on Mark Twain’s humorous excerpt from “Roughing It” in 1872 as the launching pad for what became coyotes’ dismal reputation.
Twain writes, in part: “He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him … He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it.”
By the 1920s, even Scientific American inserted the coyote as the shifty trickster-villain in a contemporary political allegory in which it argued that good Americans, if they spy one, should shoot it on sight for patriotic reasons — because the coyote is “the original Bolshevik.”
Much disdain for coyotes originated within the livestock industry, whose assets run afoul of predatory animals. And that, Flores says, led to an agency of the federal government, then called the Bureau of Biological Survey, seizing on the opportunity to brand itself, in the early 20th century, as the antidote to predation. It proved an effective strategy to guarantee congressional funding.
Colorado played a pivotal role in the extermination efforts that followed. The Eradication Methods Laboratory, which designed and manufactured the means to kill massive numbers of mostly wolves and coyotes, began producing strychnine in Albuquerque. But in 1921 it moved operations to Denver — where, Flores writes in “Coyote America,” “it would go on to perfect an amazing witch’s brew of ever more efficient, ever deadlier pesticides.”
Even the eradication campaign came with what Flores calls a “concerted PR effort” to demonize coyotes. Powered by a series of pre-packaged stories from the Biological Survey, he says, major publications all across the country ran fictionalized accounts that cast certain nuisance animals, including the coyote, as Al Capone-style gangsters. Those who would destroy them were cast as heroic G-men.
Wolves were essentially wiped out in the U.S. by 1925. But coyotes, despite lacking a public relations campaign of their own, more than survived attempts to snuff them. They flourished. So what did they have that wolves didn’t?
In simple terms, coyotes can live in groups, when it’s advantageous. But when it’s not, they can disperse into pairs or even solitary individuals and scatter across the landscape, making them difficult to locate and eliminate.
“Wolves are pure pack animals, and hunters discovered if you can track one of the animals in a pack, you can use its scent to prepare bait and get every one in the pack,” Flores says. “But coyotes don’t have the same pack adhesion. That’s the single advantage over wolves that allowed them to survive.”
So the eradication strategy backfired. Not only did the campaign not wipe them out, but it triggered colonization. When coyotes sense their numbers dwindling, the number of pups in their litters grows larger — a phenomenon called “compensatory breeding.”
Coyotes migrated all over the country and grew comfortable in urban areas, where they face no natural predators, no hunters shooting at them from helicopters, no leg traps or poisons. Plus, urban areas attract plenty of smaller animals, like rabbits, squirrels, rats and mice, that provide a ready food source.
“It’s a Frankenstein story that’s of our own making,” Flores says.
But by the early 1960s, a cultural icon took a stand for the lowly coyote. Walt Disney, whose catalog of film and television productions adopted ecological advocacy in its infancy, in 1961 produced an hour-long feature for “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color,” a show that already had a reputation as appointment TV. The animated piece was called “The Coyote’s Lament” and marked the first of six TV or movie features Disney would produce on coyotes.
“And while that was happening, you had the Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon,” Flores notes.
While not exactly heroic, Wile E. Coyote presents at least a sympathetic image of the coyote. He’s humiliated by the Roadrunner at almost every turn, and his efforts to employ technology fail miserably. But he never gives up.
“After a four-decade campaign to brainwash Americans, suddenly the pop culture movement portrayed the coyote in a different light,” Flores says. “That makes a lot of difference.”
Urban coyotes tend to be bolder
Considering their tarnished reputation, coyotes’ ability to adapt and survive has been nothing short of astounding.
For all the talk of how human development has encroached on animals’ natural habitat, the coyote has turned the tables. A recent story in National Geographic reported that coyotes actually have increased their range by 40% since the 1950s, can be found in every state except Hawaii, have become established in Central America and are expected to appear soon in South America.
Mary Ann Bonnell, a ranger for Jefferson County open space, has published research on coyotes and stars in widely viewed YouTube videos on wildlife that make her an in-demand source on dealing with urban arrivals. She can almost track their territorial expansion simply by picking up the phone.
“Currently, it’s the D.C. area and New York City,” she says of the calls seeking advice. “Here in Colorado, we already went through that whole arc: In the early 2010s people were going, ‘Here’s this apex predator that’s moved into the neighborhood, what does that mean? What happens to my dog?’ All these burning questions, all valid. Those residents have a quick learning curve to figure things out and make changes and understand what it means to have coyotes in the community.”
Meanwhile, researchers in Colorado continue to keep tabs on coyotes’ — everything from their interaction with humans to their diet and genetic clues that may offer insight into their adaptive behavior. But what’s going on when we see an uptick in coyotes’ encounters with people and unusually fearless behavior that can include attacks on pets?
Stewart Breck, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center based in Fort Collins, also specializes in urban coyotes. He has a good idea what’s going on. In fact, he sees two things.
First, urban coyotes tend to be bolder and “more explorative,” he notes. Breck drew this conclusion from research comparing coyotes in Denver to those that inhabit rural areas, which confirmed the behavior pattern. Similar studies have been repeated in many areas around the country.
Second, researchers have identified certain “problem individuals” that appear periodically in urban environments. These bad actors tend to be responsible for most of the unusual conflicts with people. Studies on this phenomenon kicked into gear locally 10 years ago, when multiple people in Broomfield reported being bitten by coyotes. In 2011, coyotes in the area also bit three children.
“That got a lot of people asking the same question you’re asking,” Breck says.
Cannon, the wildlife manager for CPW, says that when the first child was bitten in Broomfield, CPW made an effort to lethally remove the culprit. The problem is that coyotes tend to look the same and live in social groups, making it difficult to pinpoint the problem. When the second child was bitten, CPW responded again and eliminated more coyotes — and repeated the process again after the third biting incident.
“Finally, we were able to catch up with the correct coyote and the behavior stopped,” Cannon says. “It’s hard to say why they’re behaving that way, if there was one or more than one, but it took multiple operations on our part before we eliminated the one. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but it’s difficult to lethally manage coyotes in an urban setting.”
Despite the troubling incidents, Broomfield has maintained a fairly conservative, hands-off approach with regard to coyotes that leans on measures like education and sometimes closing down open spaces if issues arise — leaving removal as a last resort, Cannon says.
In 2009, Greenwood Village responded to a year’s worth of sightings and attacks on dogs — which culminated with a teenage boy fending off a coyote in a local park — by hiring Jay Stewart’s Animal Damage Control to kill the problem animals. The subsequent media attention activated animal rights advocates, and their protests ignited what Stewart recalls as a “fiasco” that demonstrated the strong feelings humans have on both sides of the coyote issue — and aborted his efforts.
Later, Stewart notes, a client who lived adjacent to the park where the well-publicized attack on the boy had occurred told him that people in the area had felt sorry for the coyotes and had been feeding them. It’s not unlike the problem that has vexed wildlife authorities in other areas, where the same type of human behavior also has emboldened many bears, which then become so comfortable around people that they have to be put down.
“Things go south when that happens,” Stewart says. “Even though it was a bad thing in the park with that kid, that problem was human-caused. Because they were being fed, it probably walked up to that kid thinking it would get something.”
More education means fewer incidents
Stewart gets far fewer calls about coyotes than he used to because many jurisdictions have developed coyote management plans that emphasize education and hazing the animals as a primary means of dealing with them. When they need removal, they turn to state and federal agencies to handle the situation, or even local police.
Greenwood Village, which draws on Bonnell’s expertise, fine-tuned its coyote management plan over the past several years. It has seen a remarkable decline in incidents, says Cmdr. Joe Gutgsell, who oversees coyote management for the city’s police department.
Since 2013, Greenwood Village has hosted an annual community meeting to familiarize residents with policies and recommendations for how to minimize coyote problems. It also has started a detailed reporting program that allows Gutgsell to chart location and frequency of incidents and, as a result, respond more effectively when necessary.
When circumstances do call for removal, Gutgsell says the police department has a “selective and organized” process that calls on two designated officers — both firearms instructors — to handle the problem. The city no longer contracts removal or relies on CPW.
Bonnell speaks at the yearly neighborhood meetings, and the city provides both printed and digital versions of an informational brochure that cover topics like normal coyote activity, leash laws that can help protect pets and admonitions against feeding wildlife.
While Gutgsell acknowledges that some of the recent decline in incidents may be due to simple luck and natural migration, the numbers over the past five years have been encouraging. In 2015, the city fielded 26 reports of coyote incidents involving pets, a number that includes both injuries and fatalities. When that number spiked the next year to 46, more than 100 residents showed up to the annual meeting, where they got a heavy dose of prevention education.
In 2017, the number fell to 20, then to five and finally, last year, to just a single reported incident.
There was no cause to remove any of the animals and only a few residents even showed up for the annual management meeting.
Bonnell calls it a model program, and notes that the city learned a lot from the 2009 debacle. She adds that communities in the Denver metro area that have taken advantage of templates offered for management plans (among others, the Humane Society of the United States has produced a sample plan) and that stress education tend to be best equipped to deal with coyotes — as opposed to those that wait for a problem to emerge and then call Colorado Parks and Wildlife for help.
“Coyotes are smart creatures and tend to work the system,” she says. “You have to be proactive. But because humans are hard to train, we usually don’t do anything till something bad happens. It’s hard to sell coyote education if nothing bad is happening.”
CPW’s Cannon notes that most plans she has seen respond to sightings with education or signs warning of coyotes’ presence. And some plans allow for lethal response when coyotes pose a threat or injure a person — and often delegate that job to her agency.
“We don’t remove coyotes for being coyotes,” she says. “We don’t lethally control a coyote that becomes habituated to people and comfortable in urban neighborhoods. And we don’t remove coyotes that prey on pets. They’re similar to its natural prey source, so it’s natural behavior for coyotes, unfortunately, and the onus is on the pet owner to supervise their pet when they live near coyotes.”
While measures such as motion-sensor flood lights and even noisemakers like air horns are encouraged, especially for people living alongside open space or parks, the question of a homeowner using firearms to try to eliminate a problem coyote can raise legal issues. State law allows use of lethal force to prevent damage on your own property, but many urban jurisdictions have laws regarding discharge of firearms that could conflict with that method.
“For all practical purposes, it’s not an option,” Cannon says.
The USDA’s Breck adds that in most cases, elimination doesn’t solve what people might think it will. Consider what experts call “coyote math”: 1 minus 1 equals 1. And the adage that holds: “If you kill one coyote, six will come to the funeral.” Targeting bad actors is one thing. Culling the pack is a pipe dream.
In light of that calculus, one helpful tactic is hazing, which involves non-lethal measures from making noise when coyotes become too comfortable to chucking rocks to intimidate them into shying away from humans.
“Most coyotes in urban areas are not going to be a problem,” Breck says. “They’ll do what coyotes do, and you’ll hardly notice they’re around. The idea that we need to get in there and shoot them is not what I’m recommending. That is not going to work, and not necessary.”
On a national scale, coyotes still are eliminated, but primarily to protect livestock. Farmers and ranchers claim millions of dollars in economic losses. In 2018, according to the USDA, more than 68,000 coyotes were killed by a variety of methods. Nearly half were shot from either fixed-wing planes or helicopters. In five agricultural states, not including Colorado, more than 5,600 were poisoned with so-called “cyanide bombs,” a method re-approved for use last month by the Environmental Protection Agency (with some additional safeguards) over objections from conservation groups.
“It’s not that I hate coyotes…”
No coyote attacks on humans have been reported in Parker, according to police. But suddenly, neighbors throughout the area were seeing coyotes everywhere. And some exhibited unnerving behavior — including additional attacks on dogs.
Parker police noted an uptick in sightings, but remained unaware of the dog deaths until the Broshes filed their report on Chloe. In fact, since mid-November, they have a record of just six calls for service involving coyotes — five sightings and one dog fatality.
Meanwhile, a multitude of postings on the online neighborhood bulletin board Nextdoor warned when coyotes were spotted and reported incidents including attacks on dogs. Mardee says a neighbor filtered all the various accounts and counted 10 unique cases of dogs that were killed in the area in and around Parker.
That disparity with law enforcement’s records underscores the need for further public education, says Parker police spokesman Josh Hans. While law enforcement can post notices on Nextdoor, it isn’t allowed to monitor the bulletin boards, so it relies on direct reporting from residents.
“From the information reported to us, it doesn’t make (coyotes) seem like an issue,” Hans says. “In the next month or two, we need to start getting some messaging out. It’s great that people are letting their neighbors know so they can be watchful. But if they’re not telling us, we can’t do anything about it.”
In recent days, the Broshes installed video cameras outside their house in the hope of learning more about coyote activity. They would prefer a back fence higher than just 42 inches along their border with open space, but neighborhood covenants dictate the lower, split-rail style that leaves pets more vulnerable. They had the motion-activated flood lights installed, and always checked before letting Chloe and Chuffy loose in the backyard.
Mardee figures one or more of the coyotes from what appears to be a den in the gulch simply traced the fence line, checking the yards for possible prey. “And when they got to mine, they just hopped the fence because my dogs were there. So we think they’ve been actively hunting in the yards.”
But her concerns run beyond her own loss.
“We’ve heard from other folks, people walking on the trail down here being harassed when they’re hiking with their dogs, which I can see because that den is very close to where the trail runs through,” she says. “And now people are saying they’re seeing them further up into the neighborhood.
“It’s not that I hate coyotes,” she adds. “We thought they were cool. I just don’t want them in my yard. And I don’t want them attacking people when they’re walking their dogs on the trail. I don’t want to have to worry about going to the mailbox and having to take pepper spray. I just want to be safe in my own neighborhood.”
Bonnell, the Jeffco open space ranger, conjectures that possibly a new pair of coyotes — which mate for life — moved into the neighborhood and were “denning” in preparation for a litter of new pups. “And at least one is dog-aggressive, protecting territory by removing competition,” she says.
“The timing, if this has all happened in the last couple of months, makes sense,” she adds. “Right around the time we switch from daylight savings to standard time, you begin to see the dog awareness where coyotes are escorting dog walkers away from their den or even attacking and killing dogs. There’s an increase in conflict right around that time. They’re establishing territory for the family that’s coming.”
CPW’s Cannon empathizes with the frustration of people worried for their pets.
“They’re not wild animals, they’re family members,” she says. “And it’s extremely difficult when people are facing tragedy like that, for us to come in and say, ‘Well, that’s a coyote’s natural prey source.’”
On top of that, she recognizes the inconvenience of having to constantly keep an eye on your pets, even on your own property, to ensure they don’t fall victim.
“I have dogs and a big backyard I like to let them run around in,” she says. “I understand what a burden that is, to think in order to protect your pet, you need to go out with them every single time and keep them on a leash. I just don’t know that there’s an alternative solution that’s going to alleviate that. It’s kind of a reality.”
Food for thought
And so the conversation about coyotes continues. The interaction of humans and wildlife has become a hot area of research, and Joanna Lambert, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, has bitten off a considerable chunk — almost literally.
She’s looking at what coyotes eat in different environments and how that may have changed their genetic makeup, which in turn might explain certain behaviors, particularly in urban environments. More precisely, her research examines whether there are particular genes involved with the digestion of carbohydrates in human food.
“Dogs evolved the capacity to extract energy from starchy carbs, in a way wild wolves don’t,” Lambert says. “We’re looking at whether there’s evidence of the same process in coyotes. A lot of other questions asked about coyotes are very difficult to distinguish between whether the behaviors we’re seeing are the result of learned behavior or genetics. It’s very complicated. We’re tackling that problem from a slightly different angle, looking at the food part and if the genome has shifted toward human food.”
Lambert also has two graduate students pursuing studies related to coyote-human interaction in the Denver and Broomfield areas. One seeks input from people who frequent local parks and open space about their perceptions of whether coyotes have become more aggressive, curious or bold. Another student is tracking whether coyotes are more or less likely to avoid humans when more humans are present — such as during a busy day in the park.
None of the studies has yet been completed and published.
“Cities in some ways represent a refuge from natural predators, from human hunters,” Lambert says. “But they also offer a whole new array of food sources. These can be anything from birdseed, occasionally human garbage, cats and small dogs. It could also be almost certainly the case that they’re eating other animals that have adapted to humans, like house mice and rats, urban animals. That’s part of the big question.”
Coyotes have learned to read human behavior, explains “Coyote America” author Flores, noting that while coyotes have no fear in cities, where they’re not being hunted, their behavior can be much different in rural areas. If you see coyotes while driving in rural New Mexico, he explains, and then pull your car over, they’ll sprint away from the car running in a switchback pattern — an evasive maneuver learned because in such situations they can expect gun shots.
“I encourage people to keep them wild, keep them thinking that we’re a little too weird for them to trust,” he says. “When I see them standing around and not moving, I’ll raise my arms and shout, maybe throw a rock. It’s good for them to be a little spooked rather than nonchalant.”
By the same token, it can be helpful for humans to understand something about coyote instincts. From May until August, roughly, they have pups to protect. So if a coyote emerges from the bushes to “escort” a hiker and their dog away, following but not quite threatening, it likely means they approached too close to a den. It’s happened to Flores in the canyon near his home while running with his 135-pound malamute.
Bonnell’s interest in coyotes was piqued before she took her Jeffco ranger job, when she was working in Aurora and came across people who essentially treated the wild canids as pets, even naming them as they trotted up to windows to touch noses with their house pets. So when she talks about basic “truths” about coyotes, arguably the most significant one isn’t about coyotes at all. It’s that humans are extremely difficult to train.
“We’re used to a culture where you swipe your credit card and a problem goes away,” she says. “This is not one of those problems. People want to hear coyotes can be removed, that you can make the problem go away, leave the dog in the back yard and not worry. If you can’t get through acceptance, you can’t get to the next level.”
Understanding this breeds a more comfortable coexistence. But that may be more difficult as development moves forward and human population becomes more condensed and less connected to the natural world.
“This is an old story,” CU’s Lambert says. “We’re losing our knowledge of the wild world. Every generation has a baseline understanding of what’s wild and not, and we’ve lost that knowledge of how to be around animals.”
Coyotes, aided by millions of years of genetic fine-tuning along with thousands of years’ experience adapting to human presence, have learned to offset whatever hardship civilization has tried to impose. Lambert sees the coyote as an enduring symbol of the region.
“In a way, it’s kind of iconic of the West, of a wilder past, of a species that’s a true survivor,” she says. “They’re also galvanizing in a way other species aren’t. People hate or love coyotes. Either way, we have to learn to live with them.”