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Portland researcher studies urban coyotes

In this 2011 file photo, a coyote crosses a snowy street in the Irvington section of Portland. Coyotes are a fairly common sight in rural areas of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. (Beth Nakamura / Associated Press)
In this 2011 file photo, a coyote crosses a snowy street in the Irvington section of Portland. Coyotes are a fairly common sight in rural areas of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. (Beth Nakamura / Associated Press)
By Eric Mortenson Capital Press (Oregon)

PORTLAND – Coyotes are a fairly common sight in rural areas of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, and landowners might instinctively reach for the rifle if they see one in the pasture or sniffing around the barn.

Put a coyote in a city, however, and residents are more likely to react in a way that ranges from trying to feed them to panicking over their pets and children. Coyotes sometimes lose their heads as well, becoming so habituated to people and urban environments that they trot down streets in broad daylight and snack on garbage or the occasional cat.

Many cities, Portland among them, are now home to thriving coyote populations.

Zuriel Rasmussen, a student at Portland State University, is trying to learn more about how coyotes and humans coexist in cities. Rasmussen is a researcher and director of the Portland Urban Coyote Project, which maps coyote sightings and provides information in collaboration with the Audubon Society of Portland.

Rasmussen is pursuing a Ph.D in Earth, Environment and Society, a program offered through PSU’s Geography Department. She’s interested in science communication and public engagement, and the coyote project offers opportunities for both.

She comes at it from a rural perspective. She lived in Weston, near Pendleton in Eastern Oregon, until she was 12. Coyotes were part of the landscape there, and she was startled the first time she saw one in Portland.

“I was one of those East Oregonians surprised to see a coyote,” she said. “I thought it was pretty cool. I was fascinated with how they were living in the city and how that’s even possible.”

The possible now is commonplace. Residents of the Portland metro area have reported 1,916 coyote sightings to Rasmussen’s project website just this year. Coyote calls keep USDA’s APHIS Wildlife Services hopping as well: From 2012 through 2015, officers responded to an average of 373 coyote “conflict” complaints in Clackamas County, which borders Portland, and killed an average of 30 a year, according to statistics provided by Kevin Christensen, of the Wildlife Services office in Portland.

Wildlife Services responded to an average of 222 coyote conflicts a year in Washington County, on Portland’s west side, and killed an average of 15 a year during the same time frame. Wildlife Services does not have a cooperative service agreement with Multnomah County, which covers most of Portland, but killed three coyotes that were acting aggressively toward people and pets.

Of the Clackamas County coyote complaints, 56 percent involved damage or threat of damage to agriculture. In Washington County, 54 percent of the coyote conflicts involved agriculture, according to statistics provided by Christensen.

At PSU, Rasmussen’s studies over the past couple years have shown the urban and rural divide plays out with coyotes as it does with many other issues. Some Eastern Oregon residents have posted graphic YouTube videos about hunting coyotes, complete with slow-motion replays of bullets hitting coyotes at long range.

Portlanders’ reaction to the presence of coyotes appears to range from neutral to positive, Rasmussen said. Although concerned about coyotes attacking pets, they’re generally supportive of coyotes and opposed to lethal control.

“One of the big things I’ve found is that the impact coyotes have on your life bears a lot on your attitude,” she said. In rural areas, they’ve been vilified – along with wolves – as something that threatens people’s livelihoods, particularly with livestock, she said.

In cities, they’re not seen as a threat to the way people make a living. Instead, they are “a glimpse of the wild in an urban environment, which is a different experience than seeing a coyote near your sheep pasture.”

Analysis of urban coyote scat shows their diet is primarily rats, mice, squirrels and rabbits, “pretty similar to a rural coyote,” Rasmussen said. They eat more garbage than their rural cousins, and about 1 to 2 percent of their diet is cats.

“They’re super opportunistic,” she said.

Part of her work involves advising city residents what to do when they see a coyote. She said urban coyotes can become habituated to humans, and people should “retrain” them to be wary. She recommends “hazing” them by yelling, using an air horn, shaking a coffee can full of rocks or other methods. People obviously shouldn’t feed coyotes, either directly or by leaving pet food or garbage accessible, and should keep a close eye on pets, she said.

“When they get used to being around people, those are the coyotes that cause problems,” she said.

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