In 2000, officials there were trying to get a handle on how to deal with the growing number of coyotes, and Cook County Animal Control contacted Gehrt, who was already doing research for the agency on raccoons and disease.
Stan Gehrt recently traveled to Chanute, Kan., to talk to residents about his favorite topic — coyotes.
Gehrt, an associate professor and wildlife ecologist with the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University, grew up In Chanute. And it was there, in and around the town of 9,000 in Southeastern Kansas, that Gehrt became aware of coyotes.
“They were always around. I was always fascinated by them,” he said during an interview in his campus office.
That fascination grew, and Gehrt eventually began to study coyotes, which have become more commonplace in central Ohio and other cities across the country.
One of those cities is Chicago, where Gehrt, 51, has tracked the animals for 12 years.
In 2000, officials there were trying to get a handle on how to deal with the growing number of coyotes, and Cook County Animal Control contacted Gehrt, who was already doing research for the agency on raccoons and disease.Conventional wisdom back then was that coyotes could not thrive in urban areas.To find out, Gehrt and other researchers tagged hundreds of coyotes, and in tracking them they discovered that the animals have adapted to the urban landscape.
In fact, they live in the Chicago area not only in woods but also near apartment buildings and in industrial parks.
Coyotes are in every state except Hawaii. In Ohio, they are found in all 88 counties.Gehrt got interested in coyotes while on childhood hunting trips with his father. He saw bird dogs flushing the animals out of the brush. He also remembered how he began to feel connected to them during a camping trip with his dad on a ranch.
“My dad said, ‘Why don’t we call coyotes?’ ” Gehrt said. Perhaps they’d answer back. “Lo and behold, the coyotes answered. It was a pretty eerie sound.”
He decided to pursue animal research after an adviser at Bethany College in central Kansas — Gehrt attended on a tennis scholarship — placed him in a biology program. He volunteered to track wolves in Alberta and British Columbia in Canada.“I liked it and decided that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.After his studies, he became the director of research for the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation in Dundee, Ill. Eight years ago, he took a teaching job at Ohio State.
He still does work for the foundation.Gehrt’s work, according to colleague Stewart Breck, is seminal research on urban coyote behavior.“By far, the most work done on it,” said Breck, a carnivore ecologist for the federal National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo.
In Chicago, Gehrt discovered that coyotes have become so prevalent that some are moving out toward rural areas, rather than moving in. That way they don’t have to compete for territories. They hunt for food and water at night, defending their territory against dogs, foxes and one another. They’re even learning traffic patterns and how to cross roads. “They’re coexisting with us quite well,” he said. The Chicago area has an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 coyotes.
Gehrt keeps coyote skulls in his office, including one of a coyote dubbed Big Mama. He tracked her in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg for more than a decade.
She and her mate stayed together for at least eight years before she died of natural causes last year.He has written about a dozen papers on coyotes. A study he coauthored this year found that none of 236 coyotes he and a colleague followed over six years had strayed from their mates as long as the other was still alive. Males help the females raise the pups. The study appeared in the Journal of Mammalogy. Between travels and research, Gehrt said he is committed to sharing his work with others.
Some meetings are large. For example, he addressed a group at the recent EcoSummit 2012 meeting in Columbus, which was attended by more than 1,000 scientists.Others are small. He has spoken to groups at the Ohio Wildlife Center’s Nature Education Center in Powell, said the center’s communications manager, Bryane Roberts.
She said part of the center’s mission is to educate area residents not to panic if they see coyotes in their neighborhoods.
“It’s not out of the ordinary,” Roberts said. “Having them there is a good thing. They keep the vermin-type critters at bay.”
Coyotes eat rodents and rabbits and also scavenge food, Gehrt said. They generally don’t take down healthy deer, but will if one is injured or weak. “They’re very opportunistic,” he said.
Gehrt now is working with Cleveland Metroparks officials trying to determine whether coyotes are killing fawns. Metroparks is tracking its deer population and figuring out how to manage it.
“My personal feeling is coyotes are getting plenty of deer from road kill,” said Terry Robison, Metroparks’ field research manager.
As for cats and small dogs? Coyotes will eat them, Gehrt said.
Breck is tracking coyotes in the Denver area, where officials want to know whether coyotes are becoming bolder in urban areas. Residents complain that the animals are going after pets and biting children. Of course, researchers point out, it might be a case of humans’ infringing on coyote habitats, rather than the other way around.
“These animals could be right next to us,” Gehrt said.