Washington Wary as New Predator Creeps Closer
WASHINGTON They're smart, adaptive, secretive and operate under cover of darkness. Alert and wary, they've now been spotted less than 3 miles from the White House.
The wily coyote, denizen of the West and bane of ranchers, has come to downtown Washington D.C. and the government wants to know where they are and what they're doing.
"Don't leave out pet food at night," said National Park Service ranger Ken Ferebee. "And, you know, don't leave your pets out at night either."
Coyotes were first seen late last year at the outer edges of Rock Creek Park, a natural hardwood forest of valleys and hillsides that runs in a narrow band through northwest Washington and its suburbs and borders Georgetown, Washington's most famous neighborhood, known for its historic elegance.
But Ferebee spotted one recently near the embassy district, a stone's throw from Georgetown and about a 10-minute drive from the White House. The Park Service has received reports of four other sightings near the same spot.
"I was driving up Rock Creek Parkway and it was 6:30 in the morning and one ran across right in front of me, across the road at full speed," Ferebee said. "They've kind of spread out. We've had them in the upper part of the park and now we've had a little rash of sightings around the Massachusetts Avenue area."
The coyotes, along with the booming deer population in Rock Creek Park, have drawn so much attention that a town hall meeting will be called soon to discuss the wildlife with local officials and city residents.
In the meantime, Ferebee and his colleagues are trying to track the coyotes.
"We're looking for active den sites," he said. "We want to maybe set up a motion-sensitive camera so that we can see, especially in April and May when the new ones are born."
Not Your Average Pooch
Since much of the 1,754-acre preserve -- slightly bigger than President Bush's Texas ranch -- winds through some of Washington's swankiest neighborhoods, deer have become a popular target for homeowners who want to protect pampered lawns and gardens.
They also have been blamed for traffic accidents -- about 40 were killed by motorists in the park last year -- and for spreading tick-borne diseases.
But the coyote is a relative newcomer that brings with it a whole new set of potential problems.
It is a member of the dog family but is not your average pooch. Both a scavenger and a hunter, the coyote has an acute sense of hearing and smell, can weigh up to as much as 40 pounds, easily leap an 8-foot fence and has a taste for cats. He may dine on small mammals, but also eats insects, reptiles, fruit and berries.
"Just don't attract them" Ferebee advised. "Right now, I think there's so much other stuff for them to eat in the park -- squirrels and mice and chipmunks."
Ferebee, the park's natural resources manager, and two of his colleagues, caught their first glimpse of coyotes on Sept. 19. The newer sightings are much farther south and closer to the heart of the city. Despite the novelty of a wild animal expanding its territory into the most powerful capital in the world, he said Washington was actually one of the last big American cities to have the coyote.
The animal has been moving eastward for more than a century. It originally ranged primarily in California and the northwest but sightings now commonly occur in Florida, New England and eastern Canada.
"They roam around so much," Ferebee told Reuters in a telephone interview. "They have a huge range. A male can wander 30 to 40 miles."
How many are in the park is still a mystery. In the next few weeks, Ferebee and others will begin searching for dens -- which are usually hidden but can be often be found by trails that lead away from them. January to March is mating season for coyotes and the pups are born about two months later.
The stuff of folklore in the Southwest, the coyote is revered by Native Americans, considered a pest by farmers and regarded by environmentalists as necessary to preserve the balance of nature.
Wildlife experts say it will be all but impossible to banish the coyotes from Rock Creek Park and teaching Washingtonians to coexist with them could well be the best solution.
"There might be more of an outcry to manage them if they start getting aggressive with people," Ferebee said. "It's going to be a touchy. It's illegal to hunt, bother or harass native wildlife in the park."