Photo provided by Robert Raker (visit his website here)
The Denver Urban Coyote Project (version 2.0) is a new undertaking stemming from its predecessor, an extensive and broad-sweeping study from 2010-14 under the guidance of Dr. Stewart W. Breck. Below is a brief history of where we are now, how Dr. Chris Schell came onboard, and what the future steps will be.
lessons from the past
Before 2005, it was rare for someone to encounter a coyote in the greater Denver Metropolitan Area. Even broader, circa-2005 the majority of residents in urban areas like Denver, Chicago, and Los Angeles believed there to be a clear distinction between what was “nature” what was “city”. Now in 2016, we as researchers and scientists are beginning to redefine what we consider to be natural habitats for a wide range of wildlife species. In the process, as a society we are encountering more wildlife in various situations than we previously have not in the past. Part of this is due to increasing urban development, and part to changes in global climate conditions. But what exactly does this mean for us in Denver, and why do coyotes matter? A brief view into the past provides a story into why coyotes have become one of the most polarizing species across North America.
From 2005-2010, the number of reports of coyote sightings – and conflict – began to steadily increase. As a result, Dr. Stewart W. Breck – a wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Research Centers and expert on coyote behavior – launched an all-encompassing study to learn more about the behavior of coyotes, as well as understand human behavioral patterns to assess why there was a rise in conflict. Perhaps more importantly, Dr. Breck was fascinated by the coyote’s ability to respond to what was previously considered harsh, unfavorable habitat: urban areas. Collaborating with an all-star team (including Mary Ann Bonnell, Sharon Poessel, Julie Young, Jerrie McKee, etc.) they were able to learn about coyote home ranges, diets, disease ecology, population estimates, and most importantly behavior. Some of the interesting findings were (for extensive information, video content, and more, visit the project website for further details):
1) Coyotes were relative newcomers to Denver: coyotes colonized Denver AFTER the city was developed, not before
2) Coyote territories in Denver included park space, as well as residential and business areas, some of which had heavy foot traffic from people
3) Coyotes ate more natural foods (like cottontail rabbits and rodents) than garbage
4) Most coyote conflicts were between coyotes and pets
5) The public are split in their attitudes toward the species: some love them, some hate them
project of the present
One of the most glaring insights that Dr. Breck and the team made was that coyotes were learning how to survive in cities by reading people. Our behavioral patterns, set schedules, traffic conditions, and the like were cues to coyotes about how to live next to, and avoid, human detection. This is not novel; in fact, several other researchers in cities across North America have noticed how intelligent individuals of this species are. However, a few key questions still remain:
1) Why did conflicts (albeit, few) rise starting in 2005?
2) Why do we see more coyote attacks on the west side of the country than the Midwest and East Coast?
3) How are coyote populations able to grow and thrive in cities over such extensive periods of time?
These follow up questions are a few that have garnered our attention, and generated the foundational basis for our current study, The Denver Urban Coyote Project, version 2.0. Enter Dr. Chris Schell: a behavioral endocrinologist and evolutionary biologist by training, Dr. Schell joined the team to expand the scope of the study. Primarily, now that we have a general understanding of coyote behavior and human dimensions in the Denver Metro Area, what are the primary biological factors making coyotes so successful in environments? In addition, how have they been able to adapt to cities generally in timescales ~30 years or less? These questions aren’t simply for coyotes, but for all types of wildlife that choose to call urban areas their homes. Hence, by steadily increasing in layers of biological depth, we aim to study an urban ecosystem and coyotes that are constantly evolving.
For more in depth information about the current 3-year, National Science Foundation-funded study, please click here for a brief synopsis of the project at large.