Saturday, October 05, 2013

Deer and Coyote Culling Recommended by Committee

(Update, Oct. 16: The committee reversed its recommendation on coyote management, deciding to forego culling in favor of education.) 

Management of deer, coyotes and fox was the subject of this past week's Princeton Animal Control Committee. Some realities were laid out and some recommendations made. I offered a few remarks during the public comment period, describing the ecological benefits of continued deer culling, questioning the need to manage the fox populations--given that fox numbers tend to be cyclical, tracking the ups and downs of prey species such as rabbits--and expressing interest in hearing why coyote would need to be managed.

Given that the native timber wolf was extirpated from NJ, the spread of coyotes eastward into NJ can be seen as partially filling an important ecological niche. They feed primarily on rabbits and rodents, occasionally taking young or weakened deer. Both field mice and deer carry the deer tick that spreads Lyme.

Animal Control Officer Mark Johnson described recent incidents with coyote, which center around Princeton Community Village up on Bunn Drive. A couple pets that had been left off-leash have been lost, and there was one incident in which someone was followed by a coyote. The Institute Woods is the other location described as a hot spot for coyotes, with numerous neighbors making reports. One committee member said her kids no longer feel comfortable sleeping in the backyard. Mark mentioned an attack on a child elsewhere in NJ, which I traced to reports of two alleged attacks in Middleton back in 2007, in a neighborhood that borders an extensive wooded naval base. The state DEP website lists recommendations to limit human-coyote interactions, including to keep pets indoors at night, and don't leave food outside. Reports of sightings in Milltown and New Brunswick this year included instructions to make lots of noise to scare coyotes away.

One interesting comment, unconnected to management decisions, was that the local coyotes are considerably less attractive than the pictures the DEP has up on its website. Having seen some beautiful coyotes recently in Durham, NC, I asked if there might have been some crossbreeding with dogs in NJ, but Mark was doubtful.

Any management effort would be aimed not at removing all coyotes, but limiting their numbers so as to make encounters with people less likely.

Deer management was also discussed. Customarily, bow hunting for deer is allowed starting in December in Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation, with the professional White Buffalo service beginning its work in Princeton in January. Bow hunters took only ten deer this past year, less than 10% of what the professional service takes. If the professionals are not hired, then deer numbers increase and more deer end up being killed along roadsides. The venison goes to local food kitchens. The latest data on deer killed by vehicles showed an increase of 25 deaths in 2012, following Princeton's one year suspension of its professional deer culling program. This year, following resumption of wintertime deer culling, road kill is down by a similar number.

The consensus of the committee was to recommend continued culling of the deer herd as in previous years, and adding coyote control. The two can be done concurrently.

Management of fox, however, was not recommended this year, in favor of continued monitoring. According to Mark, though coyote are thus far limited to woodlots, fox have moved into the fabric of neighborhoods, living under porches, usually without the owners being aware. A few people have been followed by foxes, and one reportedly attacked a dog--an encounter that ended with the fox running away. Also unlike coyotes, fox don't form packs, but tend to be seen singly or in pairs.

Mark said the call of the coyote can be heard in Herrontown Woods at dusk, though my visits there recently have been serenaded only by two great horned owls. May have to stop by for another listen.

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