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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chicago Using GPS-Collared Coyotes to Control Rodents?

by Jaymi Heimbuch

coyote in chicago photo
Photo via video from WGN-TV

Most of the time when a city has a rodent problem, they call in human exterminators. But Chicago seems to be testing out something slightly more... natural. After spotting a coyote running down State Street in Chicago, residents became aware of a project the city is testing out that includes allowing GPS-fitted coyotes to run free in the city specifically for them to gobble up problematic pests like rats, mice and rabbits. However, Chicago isn't letting coyotes run all over in order to keep the rat populations down. Rather, there is a much cooler project underway. Video of the wily coyote after the jump.

According to Chicago Breaking News, "Brad Block, a supervisor for the Chicago Commission on Animal Care and Control, said the animal has the run of the Loop to help deal with rats and mice. He said no one has called today to complain.

'He's not a threat...He's not going to pick up your children,' Block said. 'His job is to deal with all of the nuisance problems, like mice, rats and rabbits.'

Block said he believes the coyote is one of those fitted with a GPS device to monitor its whereabouts. He said the coyote is pretty timid and stays away from people."

Gizmodo jumps to another conclusion, stating, "Chicago police said they hadn't heard anything about any coyotes--but now the Chicago Commission on Animal Care and Control is saying that it's probably a coyote that was let loose in purpose. To kill rats and stuff."

Rather than let loose on purpose -- which these urban coyotes are not -- the GPS-collared coyotes are part of a project to learn about how the animals fare in urban settings. So, this coyote is likely one from the Urban Coyote Ecology and Management project, which captures coyotes that make their way into urban areas, fits them with radio collars, and re-releases them in order to study them more closely.

It seems smart at first, though seeing a coyote running down the middle of a road highlights a few problems -- how many of these coyotes become roadkill, or eat up someone's house cat while out prowling for pests? Another issue is brought up in the Chicago Breaking News article: "Earlier this year, another coyote was found in a park near the Chicago River and would return there to scavenge for food, he said. That animal had to be removed because it had become accustomed to people and their handouts. It was eventually taken to a wildlife center."

No one really knows what effect city life has on coyotes -- the project says it best themselves:

Our limited understanding of how coyotes succeed in urban landscapes hampers management of this animal. Even knowledge of their basic ecology is incomplete. This is important because diets, social behavior, movement patterns and survival may change with urbanization. Nevertheless, as coyotes become increasingly abundant in the cities, so does the need for basic information to develop management strategies. In areas where coyotes have existed with people for some time, such as the southwestern United States, conflicts with coyotes threaten the health and well-being of people and pets. Are extreme conflicts the inevitable result of the relatively recent emergence of coyotes in Midwestern and eastern U.S. cities? What are the full ramifications for people, pets, and other wildlife when this remarkable canid suddenly becomes a neighbor?

That's the purpose of the experiment -- to find out how coyotes really fare as urban landscapes take over their natural habitat. Since 2008, the project has captured and collared 250 coyotes. Gathering up information by following the animals will help unveil questions such as how big an impact cities have on coyotes, how it might change their behaviors or food sources, and whether or not they're to be the next raccoon, pigeon, skunk or opossum.

As far as a coyote being released on purpose to eat up rodents...well, that's probably more a tactic to keep city residents calm about their furry neighbors. Instead, the animals-as-pest-control is likely more of a happy side effect of letting the coyotes do their thing in order to find out more about them.