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Dances with coyotes

Belmont official sees coexistence as best way to manage predators

By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / January 22, 2012
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This is no ordinary hunt.

For weeks, John Maguranis has been tracking a coyote through the streets of Belmont. The town’s animal control officer is running out of time: The coyote has mange, a parasitic skin infection that can be fatal if left untreated. The deep of winter is setting in, and he wants to get the coyote to the hospital.

As residents of nearby communities ponder how to get rid of their coyote populations, Maguranis is busy trying to save Belmont’s.

“I think I’ve done my research. I feel that the stand I’m taking is justified,’’ said Maguranis. “Coyotes aren’t the big bad wolves.’’

The challenge is to get the rest of Belmont - and other suburban communities - to agree.

His campaign for coexistence comes as some residents in nearby Brookline and Newton are calling on authorities to trap and kill coyotes that roam their neighborhoods. A bill before the Legislature would open up the range of traps that authorities could use to catch problem wildlife.

Just last week, Maguranis held a public information meeting on coyote behavior, with tips for residents on how to keep their yards secure and pets safe. He spreads his message as he patrols areas where people walk their dogs. He runs Belmont’s coyote-tracking website, which monitors where the animals have been seen around town.

“People have this vision that they are running around viciously attacking people,’’ he said. “They’re not.’’

Maguranis estimates that two or three coyote families, complete with pups, alpha males and alpha females, live in Belmont. Pups are born in the spring, and typically take off for greener pastures come September or October, he said.

He knows their haunts: the old Sergi Farms, Rock Meadow, Fresh Pond Golf Course, and the town incinerator site, off limits to the public, where they hunker down in the leaf piles that heat up as they decompose. He’s found tracks at Highland Meadow Cemetery that tell him coyotes have gone there to mate.

“Have you ever watched coyotes move?’’ he asked, staring out across the marsh behind the dump. “It’s almost ghostly. It’s almost like they’re walking above the ground.’’

Maguranis, 51, has been Belmont’s animal control officer for 10 years. He spent 20 years in the Army as a veterinary technician, working on whales, crocodiles, bald eagles, buffalo. He lives in Waltham but grew up in Belmont, skipping school to hang out in the woods, looking for foxes and deer.

He’s just been named the Massachusetts representative for Project Coyote, a national coalition of scientists and educators working to promote coexistence between people and coyotes.

“I’m gonna get a coyote tattoo one of these days,’’ he said, grinning.

He knows that many people think coyotes have no business living in places like Belmont. He knows they fear for their children.

But according to the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, in the 60 years that significant numbers of coyotes have been present in Massachusetts, there have been five recorded instances where a coyote bit a human, including an incident in Haverhill last week. Two of the coyotes in previous attacks were confirmed to be rabid, and one was suspected of having rabies.

The first recorded sighting in Belmont occurred in 1998, though coyotes had probably showed up earlier, said Maguranis. There have been no reported attacks on town residents.

The urban coyote is a human creation, according to Maguranis and others who study the animals. Humans have devastated the wolf population in America, and without this natural predator, coyote numbers have exploded. They are moving into cities and towns after losing their natural habitat to development.

“The great thing about coyotes, it’s Mother Nature’s way of saying, ‘Hey, you started this, and we’re not going away, so you gotta deal with it,’ ’’ said Maguranis.

Killing coyotes to reduce the local population doesn’t work, according to state wildlife officials, who say it would require eliminating 70 percent to make a lasting dent. If one or two are killed, coyotes simply have more and bigger litters. “Two minus two should equal zero,’’ said Maguranis, “but in the coyote world, two minus two equals six.’’

Critics, however, say that selective trapping could improve coyote-human relations.

“The argument that coyotes are self-regulating populations and that if you take coyotes out, more will come in - I can understand that to a point,’’ said Herb Bergquist, president of the Committee for Responsible Wildlife Management, a statewide organization headquartered in Amherst. “But when we have the coyote populations that we have, I don’t see any negative effects to taking out some of those coyotes in a regulated, safe manner.’’

Banging pots and pans, and keeping pets inside, he said, are simply not viable long-term solutions - but trapping is.

“The objective is to bring some sort of balance into a system that is leaning heavily out of balance,’’ Bergquist said of his group’s support for science-based population control measures.

In Belmont, Maguranis takes morning walks along the Western Greenway Trail in the 70-acre Rock Meadow conservation area, which he says is popular with coyotes.

He talks to dog walkers about how to keep their dogs safe from coyotes, hollering across wide swaths of open field that January and February are mating season for the species, and all dogs should be kept on leashes to avoid conflicts.

“I’ve educated the heck out of these people in Belmont,’’ he said.

On a recent hike, most dog walkers he spoke with already knew the standard advice for encountering coyotes - make a lot of noise, wave your arms, walk toward the coyote to show human aggression. Some stopped to chat with Maguranis, telling him where they’d last seen a coyote, asking him how his search for the male with mange was going.

“People are pretty cool about coyotes, because they know about them,’’ he said. “That’s what education does. It lowers the fear.’’

Fresh Pond Golf Course is home base for the sick coyote and his mate, and Maguranis checks in there regularly to see whether the coyote has been sighted.

Work crews at the golf course keep watch for the pair of coyotes, which appear now and then, darting across fairways or curled on the greens. The men have snapped pictures that hang in their break room, and have tried to help Maguranis catch the sick coyote.

“Coyotes get a bad rap,’’ said the course’s assistant superintendent, Peter Cronin. “I don’t want to see them die.’’

Early last month, Maguranis caught a female coyote with mange; he thinks she is one of the sick male’s offspring. She is being treated at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic in north Grafton, and should be released soon, according to clinic spokesman Tom Keppeler.

“She’s probably tired of being here, and anxious to get back to her coyote life,’’ he said.

But Maguranis and the Fresh Pond workers are still worried about the male. They’ve set out humane box traps, but so far have only caught Daisy, the golf course’s dog.

Maguranis is trying to be optimistic.

“If he lasted this week,’’ the animal control officer said, noting the recent stretch of frigid temperatures, “he’ll last the winter.’’

Evan Allen can be reached at evannn524@gmail.com.

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Tips for avoiding
backyard conflicts
Feed your pets indoors, and keep garbage secure. Free food attracts coyotes.
See a coyote? Walk toward it, shouting and waving your arms.
Got a hose handy? Soak coyotes that wander onto your property.
Keep bird feeders clean. Falling seeds attract small rodents, and coyotes follow, looking for lunch.
Educate your friends. If the neighbors are feeding coyotes, it doesn’t matter that you’re not.
Close off outdoor crawl spaces. These areas make comfortable dens.
Trim your bushes. Coyotes can hide out in overgrowth.
Keep pets indoors, and dogs leashed.
SOURCE: Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife website


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