Coyotes stage comeback in Florida as residents report surge in sightings

From dwindling numbers of manatees, to Everglades critters decimated by invasive Burmese pythons, Florida has become more familiar in recent years with losing its native wildlife than gaining it.

But a surge in the number of coyote sightings around the state is raising eyebrows, and in some places concern, as the species known as barking dogs spreads further into the state.

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The Florida fish and wildlife conservation commission (FWC) says it is impossible to know how many coyotes are living there, but has recorded a doubling of public reports over the past four years. It has also closed its public interactive sightings map to new entries.

Authorities say central Florida, in particular, has seen the biggest spike – a 66% rise in coyote sightings in the same period attributed in part to development of previously wooded habitats into residential areas.

The increase in sightings also reflects a growth in coyote numbers as the mammals proliferate in urban environments with an abundance of food, shade and shelter, experts say.

“What we’ve seen in communities where coyotes were once extirpated through trapping and poisoning is they’ve recolonized those areas, coyotes have started to come back to their native homeland,” said Camilla Fox, founder and executive director of Project Coyote, a California-based group advocating for better education and peaceful coexistence.

Coyotes were never historically hunted in Florida, but Fox says their re-expansion into south-eastern states towards the end of the 20th century is similar to their recovery in places they were, aided by large litters and short gestation times, adaptability to evolving habitats and non-specific food requirements.

“In general, they are much more fearful of us than we are of them, and in most areas they tend to avoid humans,” she said.

“Problems start to occur when they become habituated, and habituation can happen from intentional or unintentional feeding. Ensure your yard is free of wildlife attractions, bird or pet food, dirty grills, open compost piles, overflowing bird feeders that may attract rodents that then attract coyotes.”

Worryingly, Fox and other advocates have seen a correlation in the rise of misplaced fear of the animals, and even incidents in which they have been harmed. Neighborhood social media sites, particularly in Orange and Osceola counties in central Florida, are heavy with reports of coyote sightings – and posts from people who are falsely convinced that coyotes are stalking small children and pets.

In Stuart, on Florida’s east coast about 50 miles north of West Palm Beach, residents were distressed earlier this month to find a coyote shot to death, its carcass tossed in a dumpster.

“The coyote is the new kid on the block, and when they move into an area or recolonize one where they were once extirpated, people are not accustomed to seeing a wild predator. Seeing a coyote is their first experience of coming face to face with a wild carnivore,” Fox said.

“That can be, at a very visceral level, a scary experience. But your chance of being fatally wounded by a coyote is far less than being fatally wounded by a drive-by shooter, or an errant golf ball.”

What also doesn’t help, Fox says, are “fearmongering media articles” and the spread of misinformation on social media “that just makes our work more difficult”.

“Nextdoor is a real challenge,” she said. “So we try in our education and outreach efforts to ensure science-based information gets out there, and all the ways we can peacefully coexist with wildlife are shared and disseminated at a community level.”

The FWC, meanwhile, has built up a comprehensive section about coyotes on its website as sightings and numbers have increased. It includes articles and advice about living with coyotes, what to do if you encounter one, and a historical perspective of a species whose fossilized remains were discovered in Florida from two million years ago, but which largely vanished from the eastern US 12,000 years ago.

Additionally, FWC’s interactive public map of recorded sightings is no longer actively seeking new reports due to their prevalence.

“Coyotes began expanding their range into north-western Florida in the 1970s, and are now considered a naturalized species in all 67 Florida counties,” the FWC said in a statement on its website.

“They are typically shy and elusive but encounters between people and coyotes in Florida are occurring more often.”

Fox said that was a worry. “The best thing we can do is to leave them alone, recognize we share the landscape with them, and implement behavioral modification on our part to reduce any kind of negative encounters,” she said.

“Coyotes self-regulate, and if we leave them alone, they will stabilize their own populations.”

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