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Ever adaptable, coyotes now populating U.S. urban areas

GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colorado: Jay Stewart lumbered down the driveway, past the Mercedes and away from the home overlooking Westlands Park near the southern edge of Denver.

"We get any coyotes today?" a woman shouted from across the street.

Mr. Stewart shook his head no, tugged at his camouflage cap and headed for the old trailer cluttered with the varmint traps he hauls with him everywhere he goes.

Since a recent rash of coyote attacks on pets in Greenwood Village, an affluent suburb of Denver, Mr. Stewart, the owner and primary employee of Animal Damage Control Wildlife Management Services, has been on the hunt. When he comes across a coyote after being dispatched by the city, he closely observes its behavior until he has judged whether it is aggressive. Those he deems a threat to humans or pets he shoots with one of his .22-caliber guns.

Renowned for their adaptability, coyotes have been showing up with brazen frequency in the suburbs of Denver and in populated areas across the country. They have been spotted hanging out in local parks, trotting down city streets and lounging in backyards, content and seemingly unafraid of humans.

Although exact numbers are difficult to come by, it is estimated that thousands of coyotes have moved into metropolitan areas over the last two decades, drawn to ample food sources and escaping hunters, traps and other perils of rural life.

Many coyotes now feel safer in cities than on the open range, said Stanley D. Gehrt, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Ohio State University. The sightings have become so frequent in and around Denver over the last few months that the city and several suburbs have held meetings to address the issue.

No community in the area has been affected more than Greenwood Village, population 14,000, which recorded 110 coyote sightings in the first two months of this year, compared with 186 in all of 2008. Coyotes have killed and maimed pets, and late last year one attacked a 14-year-old boy out for a walk.

"We've heard from a lot of our residents," said the city manager, Jim Sanderson. "They're just living in fear. They're afraid to let their children walk to school or play in the yard."

After years of complaints about coyotes, efforts to urge the public not to feed them and a series of emotional public meetings, Greenwood Village hired Mr. Stewart at $65 an hour to kill any coyote known to be threatening people or pets.

"I can get it done," he said with a grin, his tough veneer reminiscent of the shark hunter Quint in the movie "Jaws."

Dr. Gehrt, who studies coyotes in the Chicago area, said most coyotes that moved into urban areas remained fearful of humans and could coexist peacefully with them.

"We do know that when coyotes start to flip over to the dark side, it is almost always because of human feeding," he said. "They become more comfortable, and then they become aggressive."

His observation is little comfort to Debbie Scheper, the mother of the 14-year-old who was attacked. The boy, Matthew, managed to swipe the animal away with an elbow to the snout and was not seriously harmed. The attack led some residents to carry horns or golf clubs. Others have built fences around their properties, and still others do not venture out at night.

"It's like something out of a Stephen King novel," said Ms. Scheper, who hears the coyotes wailing outside her window at night. "It's kind of like we're being held captive by these things. They have no fear."

After a man was bitten while walking his dog in Broomfield, a nearby suburb, the Colorado Division of Wildlife, working with the federal Department of Agriculture, shot and killed five coyotes near the scene of the attack.

Nicole Rosmarino, the wildlife program director with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, said that accounts of attacks had been exaggerated and that most of the injured pets had been off their leash or unattended.

"We think Greenwood Village is operating in an utterly irrational manner," Ms. Rosmarino said. "It is not going to help their citizens. Clearly, they have panicked."

Ms. Rosmarino and dozens of volunteers have fanned out across Greenwood Village to protect coyotes from Mr. Stewart's gun by trying to instill a fear of humans through shouting and other techniques.

Colorado cities like Centennial, Denver and even Greenwood Village are teaching residents such techniques in the hope that fewer coyotes will have to be killed.

Mr. Stewart said the techniques had their benefits but would not work for an animal that had already gone after a person or a pet. He proudly recalled the 224 aggressive coyotes he had shot, trapped or snared over 13 years, including one that he felled as part of his contract with Greenwood Village.

Still, Mr. Stewart said, if residents expect him to kill every coyote around, they have the wrong man.

"I have a lot of respect for coyotes," he said. "They're going to be here a lot longer than we are."


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