Virginia Tech researchers have been conducting a study on coyotes in Bath County for the past three years. The study will help answer questions such as how many coyotes there are in the area, what they are eating and if they’re contributing to the decline in the local deer population. To get those answers, first you have to collect data. And the first step in collecting that data is catching coyotes.
Dana Morin is a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University) and a graduate research assistant on the Virginia Appalachian Coyote Study.
“We used foot hold traps and relaxing lock neck snares so that we didn’t injure the animal,” says Morin. “Our trapping methods are very similar to the same kind of trapping methods that are used for harvesting fur. Except that we make a lot of modifications to make sure that the animals aren’t injured during the process, because we are not really interested in studying three legged coyotes.”
Over a two year period Morin trapped nineteen coyotes in Bath County.
“We modified the foot hold traps to use soft catches so that their feet wouldn’t be injured and we used a special cam lock on the snares so that it wouldn’t strangle them when we caught them,” says Morin. “And then once we’ve caught the coyotes, we use what we call physical immobilization. Really the coyotes, although they look like German Shepherds and they look large, they are not actually as large as they appear when you see them. And so really our largest coyote we captured was forty pounds. So what we’re able to do when we have one in a trap is to carefully approach it with a catch pole and then essentially noose it and pin it to the ground. And then once we’ve pinned it to the ground, we can muzzle it and Velcro it’s feet together essentially. And that allows us to then work on the coyote without having to use drugs. And that way it’s a lot safer for the animal and when we release them they’re fine and they just run off immediately.”
Once trapped, the coyotes were fitted with GPS collars so their movements could be tracked. And groundwork was done for the rest of the research.
“We would put the collar on first,” says Morin. “We took a tissue sample so I could get genetics from it to match it to scat later on. We collected ticks for a researcher at The Smithsonian who is looking at what different mammals carry different types of ticks on them. We collected hair samples for a professor at Virginia Military Institute who is looking at the isotope analysis of coyote hair to determine what they are eating. We collected blood at some point to look at heartworms. We collected fecal samples and scat samples for David so he could compare that to the general diet analysis he was doing. Basically once you have a coyote in hand you try to get as much information as you can out of it, because they are pretty difficult to trap and handle.”
The final report on this study will be a master’s thesis by Dave Montague, who is studying the diet of bobcats, coyotes and bears, along with Morin’s dissertation.
“So I have the collar data and I’m looking at how territorial coyotes are and how they use a base across the county and how they interact with each other as a function of that,” says Morin. “My second chapter will be looking at the population dynamics of the coyote community is Bath County. I’ll have a third chapter that looks at how competition between coyotes, bears and bobcats influences coyote behavior. And then my fourth chapter will be some simulation for different management scenarios, just based off of the other chapters. That’ll hopefully allow us to figure out what responses the coyote population would have to different management scenarios.”