N.J. coyote hunt begins in effort to stem canine encroachment
Coyotes are mythical miscreants, resourceful animals that loom large in Native American folklore. They are legend for snatching pets and livestock out west, in open country and concrete canyons.
At some point during the 20th century, the wild canines began traipsing their way east, making it all the way to New Jersey, where they've found their own suburban niche. With pointy ears, sharp teeth and a certain air of indifference, they'll gobble everything from grasshoppers to disabled deer.
"I know people who've lost chickens, cats," says hunter Nick Maltese, 20, of Hackettstown. "Coyotes have one of the most ugly calls you'll ever hear. It sounds like something that's dying and laughing at the same time."
Maltese is actually hoping to hear the howls of the "song dogs" when he goes hunting with his friend, Ryan Dubord. On Monday, New Jersey's special-permit coyote season begins."I go out in the snow, under the full moon," says Dubord, 24, of Hackettstown. "They're so fast, it's difficult to hunt them. You see them but you don't shoot a lot because they're quick. I've seen some real mangy-looking ones. They're all over the place because there's lots of hills and thick cover and places for them to hide."
Through March 15, an estimated 2,000 permit holders will scout the woods with shotguns and crossbows, seeking out rogue canines after dark.
If state counts are correct, there might be more coyotes in New Jersey than black bears. New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife biologist Andrew Burnett estimates that the population could be north of 5,000. In comparison, the bear tally before the December hunt was estimated at 3,400. Both animals feast on small critters and consumer waste.
While bruins are concentrated in the northern tier of the state, wily canines skulk from High Point to Cape May. Top spots for coyote hunters are Ocean and Cumberland counties.
Fish and Wildlife received 184 coyote nuisance calls during 2011, a jump from 110 in 2010. During the past five years, there have been two documented attacks on humans. A dog walker was bitten in Kinnelon in 2010, and a toddler was dragged in a Middletown backyard in 2007. Both victims suffered minor injuries.
"We warn people who have small pets because coyotes have been known to take animals off a leash," says Burnett. "If you see a coyote in your backyard, make sure you keep him moving through and call to report it."
ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES
Gray wolves lorded over the Garden State food chain, but they were hunted, trapped and basically eliminated to make way for homes and farms. Now, coyotes have settled in and learned how to coexist with humans, unlike wolves, which are more confrontational.
"These are highly intelligent, highly aware animals," says Sean Grace, director of the Plainsboro Preserve nature sanctuary. His fieldwork includes coyote tracking in Wyoming. "They are here and have been here in every county in New Jersey for a long period of time, and how many people have actually seen a coyote?"
The cagey Jersey creatures might actually be wolf hybrids. Eastern coyotes are larger than their western cousins, averaging 35 to 45 pounds, with thick, multicolored fur.
Burnett says the predators possibly migrated through Canada and swam across the St. Lawrence River from Ontario to New York before sauntering down to Jersey. The Empire State is home to some 30,000 coyotes.
"Some may have been brought here in the 1930s and 1940s by people who traveled west, caught them and brought them back here," says Burnett. "They may have been zoo specimens that were let go."
Grace believes the mammals were here before settlers arrived and they are now on the rebound.
Hunters like Manny Cerca tell a different story.
"The state trucked the coyotes in to reduce the deer herd 20 years ago," says Cerca, owner of the Bullet Hole, a Belleville gun shop and firing range. "The automobile insurance cartel complained to the state because there were so many car accidents and they had to pay claims if someone hit a deer. The coyotes were live-trapped out west, driven here and released in Sussex County by the fish and game department. Now, it's turning around to bite them."
Burnett says that story is untrue.
"It's an unsubstantiated rumor," he says. "I've heard people saying they've got a friend who has a friend whose mother's brother's cousin is a police officer in Pennsylvania and he stopped a truck on the side of the road, and supposedly it was full of coyotes heading for New Jersey."
Folks are fascinated with the animals because they are so elusive, Grace explains.
"People love telling stories about coyotes," says Grace, who will teach coyote tracking in a series of classes beginning Jan. 14 at Duke Farms in Hillsborough.
Grace continues, "They demonize an animal they don't understand. Coyotes are an important part of the ecosystem. Coyotes primarily hunt and take rodents. Secondarily, they will scavenge deer carcasses, and there's no shortage of those in New Jersey. Historically, canines do (prey) upon other canines because they need to establish and defend their territory. On occasion, Fido might get close to a den site, probably unaware of it, and a coyote pops out."
OPENING THE SEASON
Cerca thinks the state should declare open season on coyotes. In New York, he says, it's legal to use high-powered rifles to take out wild canines. He objects to the $2 fee for permits and says hunters are more likely to put a dent in the coyote population during spring and summer rather than autumn and winter.
Since the state established its coyote-hunting program in 1997, fewer than 100 wild canines have been harvested by permit holders, according to Burnett. "It's all well and good to say that we should have no closed coyote season, but if no one is actually out hunting them, it's not going to do much good," says Burnett. "Hunters have plenty of opportunities to shoot a coyote under the laws we have now."