Wile E. Coyote Moves to the 'Burbs

Some native Americans so revered coyotes for their intelligence that they called them "God's dogs." These days residents of Westminster, Colo., a sprawling middle-class suburb northwest of Denver, would likely call them by a more common moniker - the "cockroach of mammals."

In the past month alone, coyotes roaming through Westminster's quiet subdivisions have killed at least 11 pet dogs and countless felines.

The attacks have reignited debate about the wisdom of a new Colorado law banning leg-hold traps, snares, and poisons that, back in November, had the solid favor of voters. The controversy is the latest episode in the age-old drama about how to manage wildlife - effectively but humanely - in areas where humans are determined to live.

The Colorado measure is not unique: Several states - including Massachusetts last November - passed similar laws in recent years in what appears to be growing anti-trapping sentiment nationwide. Here it was widely seen as a triumph of the urban newcomers, many of whom voted for the law, over the rural residents, who had long used traps to control wildlife populations on their land.

So it's perhaps ironic that in Westminster, a prototypical New-West community, coyotes now lope through residents' backyards. This week the city will attempt to live-trap the coyotes in box-style cages, to relocate them. But wildlife experts give the plan little chance for success.

"Coyotes are a difficult animal to capture under any circumstances," says Bruce Gill of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. And due to their natural wariness, "it is very, very difficult to capture them in a cage trap."

Apparently, they're just too smart. "That cartoon character Wile E. Coyote is aptly named. They're plenty wily," says Stuart McDonald of the US Department of Agriculture's Animal Damage Control unit.

WILDLIFE managers say coyote numbers actually increase in response to eradication attempts, and they can withstand a 70 percent population reduction. Prior to 1900, this relative of the wolf and domestic dog was found only west of the Mississippi River. Today coyotes roam all across North America - they've even been spotted in New York City - and are more plentiful than they were a century ago. "These critters have an incredible ability to learn and adapt," says Mr. Gill.

Coyotes traditionally eat rabbits and prairie dogs, but they happily take fortune where they find it, and survive on household trash and the occasional pet.

But it's the threat of a coyote attacking a human - especially a small child - that worries residents in Westminster. Although human attacks are infrequent, they are not unheard of. This year several unprovoked attacks have been reported in California, New Mexico, and Arizona.

"Do we need to have a child killed here before people begin to take this seriously?" asks Westminster resident Bob Rapp, who's among those disappointed with the live-trapping plan. "We had hoped the city would trap and kill some of these coyotes," says Mr. Rapp, who at one time thought the law seemed like a good idea. That was before his 15-pound Bichon Frise was attacked by a coyote while on her leash. (She survived.)

Observers say a reversal of the law isn't likely. It's actually an amendment to the state constitution, so a second citizen's initiative would be required to repeal it. There don't appear to be any takers for the challenge.

Meanwhile, animal-rights activists applaud the city's conservative approach. "I'm delighted that Westminster is using live traps," says Wendy Keefover-Ring, with the Land and Water Fund in Boulder, Colo. In the long term, though, "cities need to preserve space for wildlife," she says. "That would be the ideal solution."

But even if Westminster captures a coyote, it's anyone's guess where it will then be sent. "You can't relocate them," says Rapp. "Who wants a box full of coyotes?"

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