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Newton needs to get serious about its coyote problem

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  October 17, 2011 05:59 PM

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Newton has a coyote problem. This is partly due to actual coyotes, which have been spotted with increasing regularity. But the bulk of Newton's problem is the public's perception that the city isn’t taking the sneaky predators seriously enough.

Residents are understandable concerned. Coyotes are relatively recent newcomers to the area that can be worrisome due to their size (eastern coyotes are part wolf), and penchant for killing small pets. Recently, a small dog was taken by a coyote from his front step while the owner was just inside the house, and anecdotal stories of coyotes chasing people, into neighbors’ homes are circulating on local online forums.

While the latter may or may not be true, they raise the far more troubling prospect of coyotes endangering children. Coyotes are usually afraid of people, but it's hard for parents to take much comfort in that; a healthy 65-pound coyote, after all, is capable of taking down an adult deer. The fact that 2-year-old girl was attacked by a coyote in Weymouth recently doesn't help matters, regardless of whether the animal was rabid.

The city should start by creating one point of contact and information. Currently, there is no clear protocol for residents to report a sighting or an incident, nor is there a way to view report data. Newton needs to sponsor a web site that includes emergency and non-emergency animal control contacts, general information about coyotes, and, most importantly, an interactive citizen-input map.

Belmont offers a city map online with a coyote sighting layer, which is a good start. But Newton can improve on that: the ideal map would feature a dedicated interactive map of sightings and rollover information with each of those points containing date and time of sighting, distinguishing characteristics of the animal such as size, behavior of the animal, and any other notable details of the encounter. this would not only help residents track coyotes in their neighborhood, but also provide valuable clues to coyote population density and the behavior of individual animals, possibly identifying problem individuals before an incident occurs.

Residents should also consider legislation similar to Massachusetts House Bill 3315, which would effectively gut the trapping ban in the Commonwealth. Currently, there are only two legal ways to eliminate a problem coyote: a box trap or shooting by law enforcement. The box trap, is widely acknowledged to be completely ineffective against coyotes, so the only real option is to shoot the animal. Shooting poses a host of problems. Finding an individual coyote is extremely difficult (the coyote believed to have bitten the Weymouth girl was shot at, but its death is unconfirmed), and firing a gun in a dense urban area, even by trained professionals, risks significant human injury. If HB 3315 passes, officials could use more effective traps to capture problem suburban coyotes.

However, passage of this particular bill is not without significant drawbacks; initially written with beaver control in mind, opponents say the snares and body-gripping traps allowed by the proposal would result in inhumane treatment of target and incidental wildlife. State legislators need to find a way to allow more live traps, while still restricting inhumane methods.

Lastly, Newton officials need to show they’re respecting residents’ concerns. Eliminating all coyotes is an attractive idea for some residents, but it's fiscally and logistically infeasible. On the other hand, the city’s strategy of advising people to "bang pots and pans" or urge their children to try to "make themselves look bigger" upon spotting an animal is over simplistic and insulting to residents with real fears. If Newton addresses its coyote PR problem, that would be a good first step to addressing the actual coyote problem, too.

Andy Cunningham/Tufts Wildlife Clinic: a coyote looks out from his carrier at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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