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Science & Technology

Researchers Examine The Ways Of Southern Coyotes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

If you live in certain parts of the country, you probably lived with coyotes for decades. The animals have shown up in New York, Chicago. I think they can even vote in Chicago. But less understood are the coyotes of the American South. A new study across South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama aims to help us understand how coyotes live in the Deep South and how they're different from their coyote cousins out West. Grant Blankenship reports from Georgia Public Broadcasting.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: The hunt for coyotes starts in Dan Eaton's truck. Eaton's a pro trapper, has been since he was a kid, long enough to be nonchalant about the dead beaver in the truck bed, which he sometimes uses to attract coyote. We are headed to a trap line Eaton has set on private hunting land outside Augusta, Ga.

DAN EATON: Everybody wants you to trap coyotes for free until you tell them you're collaring them and letting them go.

BLANKENSHIP: Eaton's been releasing coyotes lately to include them in a new University of Georgia study. Biologists want to know how coyotes are thriving in the South and how they are different from those in the West and North. One thing scientists and southern deer hunters already know is that unlike out west, Southern coyotes are deer hunters, too. Most landowners don't like to compete. They want the coyotes gone.

EATON: I told them after the study, I'll come back and if they're still in their property, I'll catch those coyotes and take care of them.

BLANKENSHIP: We turn off a busy road onto gravel, a field on one side and piney woods on the other. This is the trap line.

EATON: Well, Jake, these aren't paying off buddy.

BLANKENSHIP: The first couple traps are a bust. We drive through a muddy hole and then success.

EATON: Got a coyote.

BLANKENSHIP: The coyote works silently to free herself. The trap holds, but doesn't crush her foot. Eaton gets his choke stick ready. You've seen dog catchers use these things. Then Eaton goes to work. He calls to the animal.

EATON: Come here, buddy.

BLANKENSHIP: Then he zips up her neck with the choke stick. And it's back up the road.

WILL GULSBY: So that's actually the collar transmitting to the receiver here.

BLANKENSHIP: That's Will Gulsby. He and Michael Chamberlin are the two biologists leading the study. They take blood samples, weigh, measure and fit the coyote with a tracking collar. She's motionless and silent, except for her labored breathing. Biologist Michael Chamberlain.

MICHAEL CHAMBERLAIN: They understand that they've been beaten, so they kind of lost the battle.

BLANKENSHIP: This coyote is one of about 160 Chamberlain wants for the study, but it's smaller than one in Chicago.

CHAMBERLAIN: The idea with this study is to expand it to a much broader landscape.

BLANKENSHIP: That broader landscape is a mosaic of agriculture and woods, but little wilderness. GPS collars will let biologists watch for two years as the coyotes either hang around a tiny range or go further away, whether they're hunting alone, like they do out west, or are more like wolves in groups. A third year will be for crunching data.

CHAMBERLAIN: There's a lot of uncertainty about how they're interacting with other species. There's a lot of uncertainty about how we will deal with this animal as human beings moving forward.

BLANKENSHIP: The trapper and the biologist find the coyote average - adult female about 30 pounds.

CHAMBERLAIN: Pounds.

GULSBY: No, sir, that was pounds.

EATON: Thirty-one pounds.

GULSBY: Well, have you checked the frequency already?

CHAMBERLAIN: I have.

BLANKENSHIP: She's calm as Eaton carries her up the road for release. She finally fights back when her feet hit the ground.

EATON: All right, girl.

BLANKENSHIP: Eaton unzips the choke stick. She leaps into the air then sprints back into the woods, stopping about 30 yards away. Michael Chamberlain.

CHAMBERLAIN: I've watched them many times. They'll stop and stare back at you and then they'll go about their way.

BLANKENSHIP: Then she's gone. If all goes well, researchers will still track her with that GPS collar. For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.