More than 160 coyotes have been killed across the state since the Georgia Department of Natural Resource’s coyote challenge started in April.
The challenge allows hunters and trappers the chance to win a lifetime sporting license by harvesting up to five coyotes each month and presenting the carcass at a DNR field office. Each kill counts as an entry in the monthly raffle, and so far more than 40 people have participated.
Coyotes are now present in large numbers in every county in the state, according to Tina Johannsen, program operations manager at DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division. They range from 15 to 30 pounds and usually travel in packs.
The challenge lasts until August and was intended to make news and inform property owners about their rights, given that coyotes are unprotected, invasive animals who prey on calves, chickens, other livestock and pets.
“The only thing that would prevent you from removing one would be local ordinances, which control discharges of firearms,” she said.
DNR plans to continue its coyote challenge from April to August next year, Johannsen said. That covers fawning season for deer and nesting season for turkeys — when coyotes can do the most damage to game populations.
The department is considering changing the program to increase participation next year to allow hunters and trappers to submit timestamped photos of their kills instead of requiring them to bring a carcass to a DNR office.
In raw numbers, the program hasn’t made a dent in the state’s coyote population.
“By no means are we trying to remove coyotes from Georgia or do we think we would have a Georgia-level impact on their population,” Johannsen said last week. “What we are trying to do is highlight to land managers that this option is out there.”
DNR estimates that deer hunters kill about 75,000 coyotes, which can be heavy predators of fawn, during the course of deer season.
Despite the huge culling every year, coyotes keep coming back.
“One of the main drivers in mother nature is: What’s your food base? Ol’ coyote, he’s got a wide one,” Johannsen said.
Not all nonnative species can survive in the Southeast, and with invasive species it tends to be “feast or famine,” she said.On one end, there’s the pheasant, which was the subject of several failed introduction efforts in the region. Then there’s the armadillo, which is doing exceptionally well in the South.
The armadillo and the coyote are old neighbors; both came from the West and are conditioned to deal with more harsh climates than they’ve found in Georgia — especially the coyote.
“They’re wily, not to be punny,” Johannsen said. “They are very skilled predators, but they’re also very skillful at making a living when they can’t find things to take. They can be a nuisance in taking livestock, pets, pet food.”
At Potting Shed Nursery on Spout Springs Road, they began causing serious problems for Elaine Kelley six years ago.
She’s owned the nursery, which sits on 6 acres of land in Flowery Branch, for 12 years. Her main crops these days are irises, daylilies, daffodils and peonies.
Kelley protects her products with farm cats — outdoor working cats with the job of keeping down rodent population that eat the roots and shoots of the nursery’s flowers. Coyotes began preying on her cats.
“So then the rodent population was doing major damage,” Kelley said.
She and the cats suffered through the coyote trouble for about two years before the pressure from the predators became too much.
“I’m next to the fire station. When the siren would go off, it sounded like an Alfred Hitchcock movie — it was just howling, unbelievable howling,” Kelley said. “... It sounded like 100 — I know there wasn’t 100 back there — but you could actually see their pups running for cover from the field into the edge of the tree line. The whole meadow back there would just start waving like a windstorm with the pups trying to get back to the wood line with their mothers.”
It’s a story familiar to Kevin Lowrey, a DNR biologist in Gainesville, who said that even one or two coyotes can sound like a large group.
On the recommendation of the Gainesville office, Kelley began paying an acquaintance to shoot a coyote and leave its carcass deep in the property. For the past two years, it seems to have worked.
“I hear them once in a blue moon way back,” Kelley said, but noted the nursery and its cats have had much less trouble with the predators.
For property owners like Kelley, it’s possible to control a local population of coyotes and protect property, but the state as a whole is stuck with them.
For the average pet owner, coyotes shouldn’t be a tremendous nuisance if pets are kept from wandering. Pet food should be kept in a secure spot and not left outdoors. Unprotected food can draw in coyotes and make them less fearful of people.
Rural residents don’t have to do anything unusual to keep their chickens and other animals safe.
“A lot of the same measures you would take to keep raccoons out of your chicken coop, those work for keeping coyotes out too,” Johannsen said.
In the long run, Georgians will have to learn to live with the predators.
“This is about management, not annihilation,” she said.