Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 15, 2011

SALISBURY — On Halloween afternoon, Allan Fontenot had just reached his deer stand off Barnhardt Road and was pulling up his muzzle-loader when he saw movement 75 yards away.
He thought it was a deer at first, until a look through his binoculars told him otherwise.
It was a coyote. Fontenot had killed one a year earlier, about this same time in the late afternoon. He knew coyotes were normally skittish, constantly checking the air — likely to smell him before he saw them.
“But this one walked down like he was on a Sunday walk,” Fontenot said. “That was really out of character.”
He shot him at 55 yards.
Taking a closer look at the coyote on the ground, Fontenot guessed — from the animal’s size — that he must be the alpha male of whatever group of coyotes populated this 17-acre tract bordering the Miller farm.
As coyotes go, this one was a prize, and Fontenot is now having taxidermist Phil Helms do a full-body, habitat mount for him.
• • •
Over the past 25 years, the coyote population in North Carolina has exploded.
In 1986, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission determined that coyotes were present in only nine counties, including Rowan.
Today they live in each of the state’s 100 counties, and the commission judged their total population at roughly 50,000 last year.
Coyotes first showed up in eastern North Carolina back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when unknown parties brought them into the state and released them — probably to spice up their hunting with dogs.
Sgt. Tony Sharum, a wildlife officer in Rowan County, stresses that the State Wildlife Commission never introduced coyotes into North Carolina for any reason — though at times there were rumors to the contrary.
Meanwhile, a natural migration of coyotes from the west flowed into the state, and eventually — and quickly — the two populations merged.
It has been an amazing proliferation for an animal that prior to 1800 was only in the Great Plains.
• • •
In North Carolina, hunters enjoy a year-round, open season on coyotes, which can be described as opportunistic omnivores.
They prey on rabbits, mice, deer, squirrels, red foxes, raccoons and opossum. They dine on road kill. They’ll go after livestock such as calves, sheep and goats. They like cats and small dogs.
But they’ll also eat watermelons, acorns, insects, corn and grapes.
If coyotes are around, don’t leave out dog food or cat food.
“Here, we have an endless supply of things to eat,” Sharum said of Rowan County.
Coyotes often roam in families of three to six. Groups rarely approach 10 in number, Sharum said. But it’s also not unusual to see a coyote by itself, on the prowl for something to eat.
“If you see one, count yourself lucky,” Sharum said.
They resemble a skinny German shepherd and are mostly gray or gray-white and tan. A few are solid black. They have pointy ears, long noses, bushy tails and, depending on their health, range from 25 to 40 pounds.
Sharum said coyotes are present from one end of Rowan County to the other.
Many residents know this from their howling.
Coyotes often answer the sirens from rural fire stations. Sharum said he can drive to random places in Rowan County, turn on his patrol vehicle’s siren for a minute and soon hear the coyotes’ response.
• • •
Out in western Rowan County, Mark Stiller was working from home and routinely, about the same time of day, he would see a lone coyote walking through his pasture.
“This always put the cows on red alert, and they made sure they stayed between the coyote and their calves,” Stiller said. “They didn’t take their eyes off the coyote until it was out of sight.”
On another occasion, Stiller was driving his tractor next to Withrow Creek when a coyote emerged from the water and into the pasture, not 100 feet from him. Stiller shut down the tractor, and man and coyote launched into a brief staring match before the animal moved on.
“I can tell you they’re still thriving in Mount Ulla,” Stiller said. “I can walk out on my deck on a random night to hear loud and multiple vocalizations.”
The howling might be just after dark or early in the morning, Stiller says.
“Most nights they are coming from Withrow Creek,” he added. “Listening is eerie and entertaining at the same time.”
Stiller says the howling seemed especially close in September and October.
• • •
Dr. Jon Shaw, a Wildlife Resources Commission biologist for a 10-county district that includes Rowan, said that compared to 20 years ago, the number of coyotes definitely has increased everywhere.
But the numbers compared to five years back aren’t necessarily all that different, he added.
Coyotes probably are more visible, Shaw said, because second generations are losing their fear of humans and taking more chances. But as far as nuisance reports about coyotes — the numbers haven’t been changing that much year to year, according to Shaw.
“Perceptions of coyotes ebb and flow,” he said. “If a coyote kills a neighborhood cat, you’re more aware of them.”
In terms of healthy ecosystems, coyotes as predators are often filling a role red wolves would have filled 100 years ago, Shaw said.
• • •
On a morning about two months ago, Roy Purvis’ three Labrador dogs wouldn’t stop barking.
When Purvis went to investigate, he discovered his Labs had surrounded a coyote.
From the coyote’s behavior, Purvis judged it to be sick. The animal stood deathly still, just looking at the dogs. Purvis asked his wife to call an animal control officer who, after making sure Purvis’ dogs were up to date on their shots, told him to shoot and bury the coyote.
“So that’s what I did,” said Purvis, who blasted the coyote twice with his 12-gauge.
Purvis lives outside of China Grove on land that butts up to Patterson Farm property, which is full of deer and turkey.
“I have sighted coyotes several times in the past couple of years — at a distance,” Purvis said. “I used to think they were a pack of wild dogs. They seem to run in packs of four, five or more. You can stand outside here late at night and hear them howling all around, which causes my dogs to bark.”
Purvis has begun securing his dogs at night out of fear of coyotes attacking them.
• • •
Calves, lambs, goats, chickens — all have fallen prey to coyotes in Rowan County.
“It’s a constant issue,” said Brad Johnson, for the Cooperative Extension Service. “Folks are very aware of them, no question about it.”
The damage prevention and control methods include fences; changes in lambing, kidding and calving seasons; sonic and visual repellants; guard dogs and other animals naturally aggressive toward coyotes; and trapping.
To lure coyotes toward them, hunters often resort to electronic calls or mouth calls, mimicking the sounds of distressed animals. They also might use a moving decoy placed at the end of a field and controlled by remote control.
Another decoy might employ a furry tail that when activated resembles the tail of a coyote or fox pouncing on a small mammal.
“They are a very visual hunter,” Sharum said, but he judged that coyotes are 10 times harder to hunt than deer.
• • •
Trevor Andrews, a college student and longtime hunter, said the closest encounter he has had with a coyote (that he didn’t shoot) came in April, on a Friday afternoon before turkey season opened.
He had walked to his hunting spot and was sitting in full camouflage against a large oak in hopes of figuring out where turkeys were roosting.
After awhile, he heard something coming through the woods about 100 yards in front of him.
“I realized it was a coyote trotting parallel to me, “Andrews said, “so I started to lip squeak at it, and that stopped him in his tracks. He looked in my direction and then started coming right toward me.”
It wasn’t until the coyote was within 15 feet that he saw the hidden Andrews and took off quickly in another direction.
“I didn’t have a gun with me, so all I could do was sit and watch in amazement,” Andrews said. “It was an awesome experience to have one get that close to me while sitting on the ground. These animals are extremely smart.”
Andrews has shot a coyote in front of his parents’ house in Mount Ulla.
He also has used a trail camera to capture pictures of coyotes at night on family land not far from the house.
• • •
Greg Hager works at the Freightliner plant in Cleveland by day. But on the side, he has a thriving donkey business, thanks to coyotes.
“I’ve sold a lot — about 30 some in Rowan and Iredell (counties),” Hager said.
Hager sells the donkeys to people with beef cows, sheep and goats.
The donkeys have an innate hatred of coyotes.
“They go after them,” Hager said. “They do work well.”
Hager said cattlemen are buying most of his donkeys, while sheep and goat ranchers often prefer white Pyrenees dogs to protect their herds. Llamas, of all things, also work for keeping coyotes away from livestock.
Hager said he has sold as many as five donkeys to a rancher, who placed one in five different pastures with his cows.
Alton Holshouser, an eastern Rowan County farmer with 30 to 40 brood cows, says he once caught a coyote standing over a calf it had killed.
“Them rascals are all over,” Holshouser said, adding there seems to be too many of them around for someone not to have released a bunch into the wild.
“I never heard of them 10 years ago,” Holshouser said. “I know I’ve had them for company the last three years.”
Holshouser said he has resorted to donkey control.
• • •
On a recent Friday morning, a pair of coyotes were lurking in the pasture behind Walter Connor’s house.
But Connor, who lives off Agner Road in eastern Rowan County, wasn’t worried. He has six donkeys to protect the ducks around his pond, and two of the donkeys were watching the coyotes intently.
“I firmly believe donkeys will keep the coyotes away,” Connor said. “They seem to be doing their job.”
Since having the donkeys, Connor said he has lost only one of his 10 ducks. Wild mallards and Canada geese also fly in to his pond regularly, not knowing the extra protection they are receiving from Connor’s donkey security force.
On that particular Friday morning, Connor took his rifle with a big scope and nailed one of the coyotes from 140 to 150 yards away.
Almost every night, Connor and his wife hear the coyotes howling in the distance.
• • •
Garrett White, also a college student from western Rowan County, carries a lot of respect for coyotes, which he describes as mystical and ghostlike.
White said you often see the damage they’re causing through shrinking deer and rabbit populations more than you actually see the coyotes themselves.
“Coyotes are very intelligent, and curiosity is about the only way you can consistently harvest them,” said White, who has killed coyotes with both gun and bow.
He estimated that he and his friend Kyle Gilliland have killed almost a dozen coyotes between them.
While most coyotes are killed by deer hunters who happen to be at the right place at the right time, Gilliland and White hunt for them specifically, especially from January to April when they can’t hunt for turkey or deer.
“It’s a different ball game,” White said. “I’d be lying to say I’m successful every time.”
They rely on two-man sets, making sure the wind is in their favor. They use electronic calling systems. White said his favorite sound to use is a rabbit in distress.
“Their curiosity gets the best of them,” White said.
In trapping coyotes, White said, a person tries to find their dens and the corridors over which they have been traveling. Trappers also might set out trail cameras, and put all the pieces of the puzzle together to determine the best place for traps, which might be leghold traps or snares.
White has seen more coyotes in the past year than he ever has before. Meanwhile, it’s not a coincidence that the rabbit population is down, White said.
“I don’t see their (coyotes’) numbers falling down anytime soon,” he added.
• • •
Fontenot, who killed his most recent coyote on Halloween, blames the predators for cutting down the deer population in his favorite hunting grounds.
When he killed a coyote in 2010, it was after he had seen three coyotes chasing a deer and a fawn.
“I have seen a bunch of coyotes the last three years,” Fontenot said.
As you might expect, taxidermists such as Phil Helms are doing a lot more coyotes.
Fontenot bagged a pretty big coyote, and Helms said he fears the predators will be getting bigger and more bold around humans as they get closer to urban areas.
On a recent Saturday, Helms was hunting near the city limits of Kannapolis when he spotted four coyotes following turkeys.
Biologists agree that now that coyotes are here, they are here to stay.
“There’s no getting rid of them,” Sharum said.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or