Coyotes in the Blunn Creek Preserve: Conservation Column by Craig Nazor
At the reluctant request of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, (PARD), the coyotes of Blunn Creek Preserve are being trapped and killed by Texas Wildlife Services (TWS). Yes, in an Austin nature preserve, the apex predator is being exterminated. One has to ask: Is this really necessary?
It has been difficult to get the accurate information required to answer that question from any of the governmental entities involved. Only one person promptly spoke to me and supplied me with some answers to my questions: the Division Manager of preserves and cemeteries for PARD, Troy Houtman. For this, deserves our thanks.
Procuring information was complicated by the fact that, in addition to PARD, there are two more Texas agencies and one federal agency with jurisdiction over Texas coyotes: Texas Health and Human Services (HHS), Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW), and the little-known Wildlife Services, an arm of the US Department of Agriculture. Texas HHS is interested in coyotes because they can carry rabies. HHS oversees regulations about how humans may or may not move coyotes around the state, which changed in the last legislative session. TPW administers regulations about the hunting and trapping of Texas furbearers, of which the coyote is one. And then there is Wildlife Services, which is in the business of predator control.
Wildlife Services is tasked with, among other duties, supplying “wildlife damage control.” This means providing federal governmental assistance to reduce damage, mostly to agribusiness, caused by American wildlife.
The program in Wildlife Services that actually kills wildlife (the Wildlife Services Operational Program) is currently steeped in controversy: http://www.predatordefense.org/USDA.htm Here is Wildlife Services’ own eye-opening list of animals “euthanized” or “dispersed” in 2012: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/prog_data/2012_prog_data/PDR_G... According to this list, Wildlife Services killed over 76,000 American coyotes in 2012 alone. Wildlife Service’s coyote control practices are also steeped in controversy: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/03/12/animal-torture-abuse-called-regular-practice-within-federal-wildlife-agency/ In Texas, Wildlife Services is called Texas Wildlife Services (TWS), despite the fact that they are a federal program, and not a Texas state program.
Wildlife Services also includes a number of other programs (invasive species control, wildlife disease control, airport hazards, predator research, etc), a number of which are science based, and appear to be environmentally beneficial programs. When I attempted to talk to the local coyote trapper in TWS, after a short conversation I was referred to someone who then referred me to a media person in one of the Wildlife Service’s research programs in Colorado. This media person was personable and intelligent, but able answer only a very few of my questions about the nuts and bolts of Wildlife Services coyote trapping.
Despite the difficulties, I have obtained what I believe to be accurate information. Partly to protect some of the sources of this information, and partly to keep the length of this article manageable, I will give the information without reference to the source. I can be contacted through the email address at the end of the article for more information.
Over the past few months, Austin 311 has recorded five calls concerning coyotes in the Blunn Creek Preserve. The reports generated by these calls were forwarded to PARD. At the same time, they were also automatically forwarded to TWS. Three of these calls were from people who were “chased” by coyotes in the preserve. Two calls were from people with dogs who encountered coyotes “on the borders of the park.” None of these claims were investigated, nor were the filers of the complaints questioned – it is standard policy for TWS to assume that all the information in such complaints is completely accurate. Based on these five uninvestigated reports, and without consultation with PARD, TWS raised the official “threat level” of coyote attack in the Blunn Creek Preserve to 5 (5 means “coyotes chasing joggers,” out of a possible maximum threat level of 7, which is defined as “a coyote acting aggressively to an adult human at midday”). The trapper for TWS agreed with this statement: “There is no credible evidence that a coyote has ever attacked a human (adult or child) in Texas, and this includes Native American lore or legend.” Nevertheless, he insisted that the threat assessment was valid, and that such attacks had never happened because TWS has been busy killing Texas coyotes.
PARD has been aware of coyotes in the Blunn Creek Preserve for years, and has made various efforts to reduce human-coyote interaction. For this reason, no dogs are allowed in the Blunn Creek Preserve. Unfortunately, people take dogs there anyway because the dog ban is not enforced. Coyotes with pups can be particularly aggressive toward other dogs that enter their territory. Some neighbors are also known to be feeding coyotes in the Travis Heights area, which everyone I talked to says is a very bad idea for peaceful coyote-human coexistence.
After establishing a coyote threat level of 5, the trapper for TWS called Mr. Houtman at PARD, advising him that the apparently escalating coyote problem in the Blunn Creek Preserve could be resolved by allowing TWS to trap and kill the coyotes. Up until Sept. 1, 2013, it was illegal to release coyotes anywhere in the state of Texas, so until very recently, trap and release was not a PARD option. Mr. Houtman asked the Austin Park Rangers if they would enforce the “no dogs” rule in the Blunn Creek Preserve, but the Rangers declined, stating that they did not have the funding for such enforcement. Mr. Houtman then reluctantly approved the trapping, and at this time, two coyotes out of a family of four or five have been trapped and killed.
The coyotes are being trapped in leg-hold traps with rubberized jaws designed to minimize serious injury, although coyotes have been known to chew off their foot to escape such traps (this is known as “wring-off” by experienced trappers). National trapping statistics show that leg-hold traps catch the targeted animal species only about one quarter of the time. Our TWS trapper told me that, so far in the Blunn Creek Preserve, he has only caught coyotes. I then asked him how he was killing the coyotes once they had been trapped, and he refused to talk to me further. No one in Wildlife Services has been willing or able to tell me how these coyotes are being killed once they have been trapped. Of the two Wildlife Services employs from Wildlife Services Operational Program that I was able to talk to, the conversation has abruptly ended when I asked how the coyotes were being killed. The third Wildlife Services employee that I talked to, a media person, responded: “I don’t know,” and has provided me with no other information about the killing procedure. According to Mr. Houtman’s information, the coyotes are supposed to be killed either by being shot in the back of the head with a gun or by being injected with a drug, but so far, that question has not been answered by any of those actually involved in doing the killing.
All of the wildlife biologists employed by the City of Austin that I have talked to about coyotes want coyotes to remain a part of our Austin parks and wild places. This is because the extermination of wolves and mountain lions from central Texas has left the Texas coyote, at 25 to 30 pounds, our largest remaining predator. Despite their relatively small size, coyotes help control deer populations (high deer populations do serious damage to native vegetation in our watersheds, increasing erosion and damaging water quality), wild hog populations (a highly destructive non-native species that also damages watersheds), feral cat populations (which impact bird, reptile, and small mammal populations), and venomous snake populations (coyotes are known to eat snakes of all kinds). Removing coyotes completely is not a particularly effective management strategy because low coyote populations cause coyotes to produce more offspring, which quickly repopulate the coyote-free habitat.
Why can’t Austin learn to live with its coyotes?
On the evening of August 20th, I was at Barton Springs to watch Karen Kocher’s new interactive movie, Living Springs, a portion of which she had shown to the Austin Sierra Club at one of our meetings last year. It was the night of a blue moon. The showing of this excellent film was followed by a free swim. I sat and watched as hundreds of Austinites, backlit by the lights of our beautiful, growing city, enjoyed the cool, clear waters of Barton Springs on a hot summer night; citizens of this sophisticated city experiencing the simple, sensual pleasures of the cool springs. High above the crowd, a beautiful Full Sturgeon moon finally broke into the humid night air from behind white, ghostly clouds. And then hundreds of people spontaneously put their heads back and howled at the pale blue moon of the August night - rich people, poor people, young people, old people - Austin people - all howled out their enjoyment of life beside the Colorado River, less than three miles from Blunn Creek.
Well, where did THAT crazy idea come from?
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