(April 2008 WSB photo – the only coyote we’ve ever seen near our Upper Fauntleroy HQ)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
When we first reported two nights ago about an apparent federal coyote hunter/trapper appearing in the south West Seattle neighborhood of Seola Beach, after coyotes attacked pet dogs this spring, we promised a followup.
We’ve made a lot of phone calls. We’ve noticed others picking up this story and turning it into something different.
The story here isn’t the fact coyotes are in a West Seattle neighborhood. As you know if you’ve been here more than a few years, they’re in just about every neighborhood here – and elsewhere in the city, and many other cities in the country.
The story remains the revelation that you can hire a federal agency – the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s Wildlife Services division – to come in and kill coyotes in your neighborhood. This may not be new, but it’s little-reported, so far as we have found through multiple exhaustive online-archive searches.
If you missed our previous story – a man we have since confirmed is indeed a Wildlife Services agent turned up in Seola Beach on Sunday night. Neighbor Garry e-mailed us about it, saying the man was asking about coyote sightings and saying he was from the federal government and, Garry went on, out to “find/hunt and probably dispose of at least one, perhaps two, coyotes that have been getting too close to humans.”
Some key information following Monday night’s story has come from commenters – especially Beth‘s reminder that she e-mailed us about the reported dog attacks two months ago. She also shared the letter that was being circulated in her neighborhood. We found it, unopened, in our e-mail archives; Beth had written at the time that her neighbor said it was OK for us to share. It read:
Most of you already know about the aggressive coyote problem that we are having. A couple of weeks ago your neighbor took her dog outside in front of her house at 11 pm for the last evening’s potty break and 2 coyotes attacked and killed the dog in front of her. This week another dog was attacked and killed while on a leash walking in the evening.
What you may not know, and what I did not know, is that no one is really responsible for controlling coyotes–even if they attack a human. The police will come if you call 911 during an immediate attack.
The US dept of agriculture and wildlife regional office in Mill Creek recommends we hire a government trapper/hunter for a fee of $1200. The trapper that specializes in West Seattle is Aaron Stevens, (phone # omitted). Aaron says that other communities have formed a co-op to fund the USDA coyote hunters.
This is what Aaron has informed me: Once the individual coyotes have learned humans are no threat, they become more and more bold/aggressive/frequent in their attacks. Our 2 coyotes probably have a litter of pups nearby that they are feeding and producing milk for; they will teach their young that humans are nothing to fear. They can attack anything under 25 lbs, including a child. He will hunt these two aggressive coyotes and remove them. Other coyotes may move into their place but will behave as normal fearful community coyotes, like we have always had. This is how he will manage the population. Once he is paid, he will continue to track the population as he gets reports from us, police, neighbors and nearby individuals.
Aaron is the name recalled by Seola Beach resident Garry, whose note to us on Sunday night is what led to our first story. While we didn’t have a name to check during our first conversation with Wildlife Services on Monday, we did when we called back this afternoon, and they confirmed that’s one of their agents.
Here’s what else we found out – not just from the federal agency, but also from the city:
Ken Gruver is the assistant director of the regional office of Wildlife Services, which he describes as an arm of the USDA that works “cooperatively – non-regulatory, non-law enforcement. We work at the request of individuals. Somebody has to request that we work.”
In other words, in this case, the residents who contacted them after the dog deaths.
Gruver says he talked with agent Stevens yesterday: “Aaron is working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as well as homeowners who are concerned about possible aggressive coyotes. There are possibly a dozen or so in the area, but only a couple of them are suspected of being aggressive toward local citizens. We’re responding (to) purely a human health and safety issue. So right now, Aaron is contacting people and investigating to see what the situation is. At this time, we don’t know for sure, we don’t have plans to do any sort of work. We’re on a fact-finding mission right now.”
What about that $1,200 fee mentioned in the letter? we asked.
“I’m not familiar with that,” Gruver replied. “We do charge for our services. If Aaron has been contacted, he will kind of discuss a price that it would cost to do a particular job. He would collect money from that entity [group of residents, etc.] to perform that function. We are a cooperative service agency” – he stressed this multiple times, describing fees as reimbursement, and saying that the Wildlife Services “program” in this state “gets a small allotment [of taxpayer dollars] that doesn’t even cover the costs of paying the staff – it’s all funded by cooperative dollars.”
What happens if Stevens determines one or more coyotes in the area are “aggressive”?
“We would probably discuss it with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife – ‘here’s what we found, here’s our recommendation, (maybe) to lethally remove that coyote. If we were to set up a padded leg-hold trap, we would get a permit from the state. If we did any sort of work at night, we would talk with local law enforcement.”
Does that “work” entail shooting? we asked.
“If it warrants it, if there is a safe place to do it, that is one of many tools they have available to them. We work with local law enforcement. Our guys are pretty highly trained – it’s not like they are shooting stray bullets up and down the street. [They shoot in] a very surgical type of way.”
We asked about the other “tools”; Gruver mentioned an agent might use “some night vision if the coyotes are running around at night … If we were to set up traps, we would use an attractant, maybe coyote urine …”
Before we could even ask about it, he denied that Wildlife Services had anything to do with the deer carcass that turned up along Seola Beach Road (Garry told us about it in a subsequent exchange). They would not use that kind of bait, Gruver said, and besides, he reiterated, this situation is still in the “fact-finding” stage: “Aaron said, ‘I just went out there one day’. It’ll take some time to figure out. He might talk to homeowners, ‘have you seen them wandering around?'”
That’s the kind of questioning reported by Garry, who was out with his dogs when Stevens turned up at a neighbor’s house.
At that point in the conversation, Gruver veered into an explanation of their view of coyote behavior: “The urban coyote is an amazingly adaptable animal. They become very adaptive about living in town. A small percent of them will start learning things like ‘if I nip the lady, maybe she’ll let go of (her dog)’ … They start learning things like that. And they can be very territorial-specific with other canines. … A jogger comes by [with a dog], and the coyote can be aggressive toward the dog.”
He also mentioned last week’s much-reported Oregon Coast case in which a coyote bit a child and was subsequently killed by Wildlife Services.
He says they usually handle “several” requests like the Seola Beach-area one in any given year. We asked when we should check back to see how the “fact-finding mission” was going, and he suggested “every few days” – though he said he has multiple agents to supervise in two states (ours plus Alaska), he might “keep a close eye” on this case.
That reminded us of one last key question: If a decision is made to kill one or more coyotes in an area, are neighbors notified?
No, he said. “We don’t do neighborhood notification. Law enforcement would be notified, the state would be notified. Typically, if we’re going to do something like that, it will be done on private property with the consent of the private property owner.” If they did issue some kind of advance notification, he added, “You can kind of imagine what would happen – there would be a [large] turnout of people with concerns, and it would be a mess.”
Given that Seola Beach includes city-owned greenspace, we asked Seattle Parks about its policy regarding this kind of operation on its turf. Through spokesperson Karen O’Connor, the reply: “No hunters, federal or otherwise, are allowed in city parkland without previous notification and approval of a specific plan. For example, USDA-Wildlife Services works with us on an annual basis to monitor Canada geese and oil goose eggs for population control, and we have worked in the past with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Discovery Park several years ago to trap and relocate a cougar.”
WDFW remains the missing link in our stories so far; we have tried for the past two days to reach recommended contacts, but our calls/e-mails have not been returned. We’ll keep trying. Theirs is the agency that produced a piece of literature we have often linked here after coyote-sighting reports – see it here – with not just information about them and their behavior, but also advice on what to do to make sure they and we keep our distance from each other. Whatever you think about coyotes in the city, it’s important information.
P.S. Here is Wildlife Services’ own coyote brochure.