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Officials say coyotes not likely to cause harm

Camping at Kanawha State Forest can take a fearsome turn in the wee hours, when the eerie howling of coyotes can sound too close for comfort.

Residents of Loudendale, South Hills and many other suburban areas are more used to the phenomenon, and wildlife officials are reassuring.

For the last 30 to 35 years, coyotes have made a home in the Charleston area as a result of a natural movement from western states.

Although coyotes are larger in the East, they still aren't very big animals. They're comparable to a mid-sized dog and usually range between 20 and 30 pounds.

These extremely adaptable animals often take close residency to people, and some find that disturbing.

Campers and residents have become alarmed by the howling, fearing for the safety of themselves, their pets, and even their food.

Paul Johansen, overseer of the Game Management Program at the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, and Ernie Adkins, Kanawha State Forest superintendent, say there is much misconception surrounding coyotes and human danger.

"It would be wrong to characterize them as vicious animals," Johansen said. "They're wildlife, not trying to seek harm or do harm to people.

"They're out there trying to fend for themselves, find enough food to survive, and reproduce. They're just a natural part of the ecosystem in West Virginia.

"I think there's been a lot of false information or stories that have been made up about how dangerous they are. It's a fallacy. Those types of characterizations just aren't true."

Adkins hasn't seen any coyote foul play at Kanawha State Forest.

"We haven't had any problem with any of it," he said. "They won't hurt anyone; they're solitary animals, they stay away from people."

Johansen agrees campers and other park users have nothing to fear.

"I would be much more concerned about getting into a traffic accident going to Kanawha State Forest than running into a coyote that would cause harm there," he said.

Coyotes typically avoid humans; their howls, yips, and yells have a long range, so folks may gain the false impression that the animals are nearby.

"You seldom see one. You may hear them at a distance with a little 'yap' like puppies, but you won't really see them," Adkins said.

"All animals stay away from human scent; we are destructive to them."

However, if provoked, trapped, or snared, the coyote would defend itself, Johansen said.  

"Any time you're dealing with wildlife, you certainly need to be aware they're wild and should be avoided.

"Watch and observe from a safe distance. If you can get close to wildlife, that's an indication something is wrong with the animal."

Coyotes may become a nuisance to small pet owners and farmers with sheep. They are omnivores that eat anything from fruits and berries to small mammals.

In suburban settings, there have been reports of coyotes taking small pets, so Johansen advises residents not to let cats loose at night and to put away pet food, which serves as an attraction.

Local veterinarians haven't reported many cases of treating animals because of a coyote wound; Johansen said, "Most likely, if a coyote comes across a pet, the owner won't see that pet anymore. They (coyotes) are smart. They won't go for a hard kill; they want an easy lunch."

For hunters interested in coyotes, there is a year-round open season during the day.

Hunting in the nighttime with an artificial light is restricted to Jan. 1 to July 31. This was established to avoid any confusion between illegal deer poaching and coyote hunting.

Hunting these intelligent beasts proves to be a rewarding challenge.

The coyotes are smart enough not to fall prey to the light at night, so a hunter must be skilled enough to earn the pelt. In the trapping season, coyote pelts are often sold for supplemental income.

In the eyes of some, coyotes are just misunderstood.

"They're in the woods; we invade their home. We have to learn to live with them," Adkins said.

Johansen had a similar view.

"We just need to learn to adapt, and quite frankly, we have," he said. "The value or nuisance component of the coyote is in the eye of the beholder." 

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