A groundbreaking, multi-state study of southeastern coyotes is barely into its fourth month, but scientists are already collecting valuable data about the secret life of canis latrans.
“So far it is all functioning well,” said Will Gulsby, a post-doctoral research associate at University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources, which is leading the three-year project.
Gulsby, along with fellow UGA scientists Mike Chamberlain, Karl Miller and Joe Hinton, are working with agencies across Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, where 80 coyotes were live-trapped last winter, fitted with GPS collars and returned to the wild.
The technology allows researchers to follow the movements of each animal to create a broader picture of how coyotes disperse and populate new areas. Understanding those movements and patterns will help assess management strategies to reduce coyote populations, Gulsby said.
The study, which scientists hope to expand next year with the release of 80 additional collared coyotes, is the most comprehensive research effort undertaken in the Southeast.
“With these collars you can input all the data to Google Earth and get a shotgun blast of locations,” Hinton said.
The ability to monitor so many animals simultaneously from a central location near Athens is already shedding light on coyote behavior and identifying traits of both the resident animals and the transient coyotes, he said.
Coyotes holding territories and exhibiting strict fidelity to areas are referred to as residents, and typically consist of breeding adults and their offspring, according to a UGA summary of the project. Coyotes without territories who exhibit nomadic and extensive movements are referred to as transients.
Transients can be young or old animals that are seeking new territories after being displaced. In addition to moving to find new habitat and seek out mates, transients are also the animals that typically fill in areas that become “vacant” when resident coyotes are killed.
“The way it looks right now, 60 to 70 percent of the residents are in areas of 10 to 14 square kilometers, or seven to eight square miles,” Hinton said.
The transients, by comparison, seem to be on the move. “They are not solitary but not totally nomadic either,” he said.
Many of the Georgia coyotes collared for the study were captured in the eastern part of the state in the vicinity of Lincoln County, but some have already crossed into other counties—or even into a neighboring state.
“We have had two in Georgia already disperse into South Carolina,” Gulsby said.
Such a feat is particularly interesting, since the Savannah River and its vast reservoirs form the boundary between those areas. Another transient traveled into the city limits of Augusta.
The study can also help gauge natural and manmade mortality in coyote populations. So far, four of the 80 coyotes being monitored have died.
“We lost two to roadkill, one was shot and one was causes unknown,” Hinton said.
Whenever a monitored coyote dies, scientists will travel to the area to recover the GPS collar.
“When we have an animal that may have suffered mortality, we can zero in to Google Earth and try to find an access point,” Hinton said. “The equipment recovered can be put back out.”
Wildlife managers say there is mounting evidence that coyotes have drastically reduced survival rates of deer fawns. They are also a concern in suburban areas, where they can kill and eat pets.
The $900,000 study aimed at gaining better insight into the species is being funded by Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources.
Another facet of the project will involve Princeton University, where tissue collected from collared coyotes will undergo genetic testing and analysis that could further refine data on migration and breeding patterns.
The states will likely use the new data to help integrate the impacts of coyote predation into their deer management plans, which support a multi-billion dollar recreational hunting industry.
The bulk of the study funds are derived from the participating states’ respective shares of the federal excise tax on the sale of firearms, ammunition, archery gear and fishing equipment.