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Study investigates fear of coyotes

For a creature that at most weighs 21 kilograms (35 lb) and would rather remain out of sight and out of mind, the coyote instills a surprising amount of fear in people.

For a creature that at most weighs 21 kilograms (35 lb) and would rather remain out of sight and out of mind, the coyote instills a surprising amount of fear in people.

Shelley Alexander, head of the Canid Conservation Science Lab at the University of Calgary and a former Canmore resident, has always believed that people often see the worst in coyotes, but her Calgary Coyote Project, which ended in 2013, helped her to understand the level of fear people often have of coyotes.

“One of the things that came out of that (study) was the emotional responses to coyotes; among them fear and major fear of coyotes and the perception of risk, high risk, when the events themselves were really infrequent,” Alexander said. “I calculated you are 200 times more likely to get struck by lighting than bitten or scratched by a coyote, but the perception is there, and the way people describe it, they are afraid to go out into their backyards.”

Alexander hopes that through her work she is able to counter that fear and find a way for coyotes and people to co-exist, which is why she is now looking beyond the city limits into the Rocky Mountain foothills with the Foothills Coyote Initiative (FCI).

She wants to understand how people and coyotes in the foothills region interact and what solutions landowners use to reduce conflict with coyotes.

“This is an interview-based approach,” she said, “so it is getting at people’s beliefs and perceptions, whether or not they have encountered coyotes and what sort of experiences they have. We also have this wealth of knowledge of the long-term residents that can help us understand if they have noticed changes in behaviour.”

Along with multi-generational family-owned farms and ranches, the foothills is also experiencing rapid residential development, drawing urban people into this rural setting.

“There is this complex interaction between what we do to the landscape and how that influences coyote behaviour and how we then respond to coyotes. We need to figure out those deflection points. Where does it go right and where does it go wrong, if we want to try and reach a point of coexistence,” she said.

By understanding how people see and react to coyotes, Alexander hopes to find ways to help coyotes and humans coexist instead of resorting to management practices and strategies like culls that do not work.

Coyotes are social animals and, much like humans, they live in a system with constraints, appropriate behaviours and rules of conduct, said Alexander.

“In canids in particular that social structure is really important to developing and to learning proper skills: what to eat, where to eat it, when to eat it,” she said. “If you have a couple of coyotes that are depredating sheep and you go out and kill all coyotes, you end up with a population that is younger, uneducated and more likely to take down (livestock) that is easy prey.”

Along with interviews with residents of the foothills, which are now underway, Alexander also plans on using an online survey to reach out to more people living in the foothills region, including residents of the Bow Valley.

For her part, Alexander said she grew to love coyotes because of their intelligence, their tenacity, their innovativeness and even their defiance.

“They are one of those animals that really test the limit of people’s tolerance because they are a carnivore in our backyard,” she said. “The other thing I find so incredible about coyotes is we have persecuted them for hundreds of years and they are still standing there in our face, just reminding us that they are still there.”

She is not alone in her appreciation of coyotes. Alexander said she is seeing a change in how coyotes are perceived among the public and the media.

“There is a large population of people that love them and want to know they are on the landscape,” she said. “All the studies being done are raising awareness of the issue and people are starting to understand it better and talk about it more and that is one of my objectives. That is why I want to know people’s experiences. I’m not going out there to tell them what they should do. I want to know what is happening.”

And, she added, if we are willing to listen, coyotes, which are only found in North America, have much to teach us.

“They have so much to teach us, whether it is in spirit, or practicality, or survival. The fact is they are still here after a million years and they are basically the same species here on the continent.”

To contact Alexander or to learn more about the Foothills Coyote Initiative, go to for more information.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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