Belmont will soon be deploying a team of trained volunteers to harass coyotes that have grown too bold living among their human neighbors.
In what may be a first for Massachusetts, the town’s Board of Health has approved a coyote management plan that involves educating residents as well as coordinated hazing aimed at scaring off particularly aggressive animals.
“We’re happy to sit here and say, great job, move forward,” chairman David Alper told Animal Control Officer John Maguranis, who proposed the plan, during the board’s meeting Tuesday night. “It is neat to be the first at something, especially something that’s going to have a positive impact.”
Residents from Newton and Brookline have long grumbled about sharing their neighborhoods with coyotes, and a coyote strolling through Boston’s Mattapan section a few weeks ago spurred a school lockdown before the animal was captured.
Urban coyotes, wildlife biologists say, aren’t going anywhere — and so it is humans who will have to adapt.
Belmont’s hazing team would be a group of volunteer citizens responsible for responding to calls about aggressive coyotes; they will confront the animals with shouts, projectiles, and jets of water from hoses and squirt guns.
In urban areas, where food is relatively plentiful, and where people sometimes deliberately feed coyotes, the animals can come to associate humans with food and lose their fear of them. Hazing, also known as fear-conditioning, scares the animals and teaches them to stay away from humans.
“The biggest component of this plan is education, and hazing when appropriate,” Maguranis said in an interview. “As it is right now, we don’t have any issues with coyotes. This is something that we’re putting in place to curtail any issues with coyotes in the future.”
The Board of Health is an elected policy-making board, so the plan does not require approval by the Board of Selectmen or by Town Meeting, said Stefan Russakow, director of the town’s Health Department. Officials still need to work out administrative details before the plan can be implemented, he said, a process that will include conversations with police and other town departments. The chief of police has already voiced support.
“I’d say now we have a good concept in place to manage these critters. Now we have to come up with the implementation details to make that happen,” Russakow said.
Russakow said he hopes to have the plan in effect by the end of the year.
The first level outlined in the plan is basic hazing, which consists of a person standing his or her ground, never ignoring a coyote, and yelling and making frightening noises until the animal leaves.
The next level of hazing would consist of approaching the animal quickly and aggressively, throwing objects in its direction, and spraying it with a hose or a water gun. The hazers will try not to hit the coyotes with anything they throw, as an injured coyote becomes unpredictable.
The plan acknowledges a basic concern — danger to the hazer — but notes that an attack is unlikely.
There have been only five recorded instances where a coyote bit a human in Massachusetts in the last 60 years, according to the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. In January, a coyote bit a 9-year-old girl in Haverhill.
“A coyote’s basic nature is very skittish and the nature of the species is what makes this technique successful,” Belmont’s plan states. “A normal, healthy coyote will not escalate a situation with an aggressive person.”
Maguranis estimates that there are two or three coyote families living in the area. Each family includes an alpha male, alpha female, and pups, though tracking actual numbers is impossible, he said.
Maguranis said Tuesday night that the goal of the management plan is to keep the coyote population stable. Killing coyotes can result in larger litters, and actually increase the local population in some circumstances, according to wildlife biologists.
Still, some advocate a more aggressive approach. Herb Bergquist, spokesman for the Amherst-based Committee for Responsible Wildlife Management, said that while he supports hazing as a reactive strategy for dealing with coyotes, a more proactive solution — involving trapping and killing, as well as hazing and other nonlethal methods — is necessary statewide.
“You really need to look at how to address higher populations. Just looking at hazing coyote populations doesn’t really get at the real underlying issue,” Bergquist said. Coyotes have a place in the urban landscape, but right now, he said, the numbers are just too high.
“It’s really polarizing how coyotes are perceived,” he said. “You either love ’em or you hate ’em. There’s not a lot of in between. People want to get rid of them all or people want to save them all. That’s disturbing to me. There’s a healthy balance between that.”
The coyote management plan proposed by Maguranis also outlines an educational strategy for the town.
Maguranis, who is the Massachusetts representative for the nonprofit Project Coyote, has already implemented an extensive outreach program. In his role as Belmont’s animal control officer, he spends time walking around town talking with residents about coyotes, and gives frequent talks on the subject.
The educational component of the plan includes teaching residents how to keep themselves and their pets safe, how to keep coyotes out of their yards, and how to haze coyotes correctly.
Training on hazing techniques will be offered for free to residents in areas where coyotes have been seen. Maguranis also said he is willing to do one-on-one training, and, if a resident calls when they see a coyote, he will demonstrate proper hazing techniques on the animal.
“It’s very effective when somebody sees it done. They’re skeptical. A lot of people see these animals and they’re big and they get afraid,” he said. “When they see me walk out, the coyote says, ‘Uh oh, big bad John is here,’ and takes off running, people say, ‘He’s right.’ . . . Knowledge conquers fear.”
MassWildlife does not have a specific position on hazing teams, but has always encouraged education and hazing as ways to deal with urban coyotes.
Belmont’s plan does not rule out killing problem animals.
“If a coyote was sick, had rabies, was completely aggressive, attacking people — the citizens of Belmont can rest assured that it would be put down,” Maguranis said.