DAVE Person pulls his pickup off the paved surface and heads a quarter mile or so up a dirt road well puddled by last night's rain. He slows the truck, peers into the weeds along the roadside a few feet ahead, and murmurs ``nothing here.'' What Mr. Person, a graduate student at the University of Vermont (UVM) in nearby Burlington, had hoped to see was a coyote, caught in the padded rubber jaws of one of his traps. That often-maligned predator, famous for its wily ways and eerie howls, is usually thought of as a Westerner, but in recent decades it has staked a firm claim to the Northeast, sparking the curiosity of scholars and local farmers alike. Piecing together a picture
Person and fellow researcher Moira Ingle have been making these early morning forays into this rolling pastureland for two years now. Their goal is to capture as many of the canny critters as possible, attach radio transmitters to them before releasing them, and thus try to fathom their habits.
But coyotes have been elusive this spring and early summer. This morning's ``catch,'' after checking dozens of traps, turned out to be one thoroughly miffed farm cat. After some soothing and reassurance the orange tom darts off through the tall grass, demonstrating, if nothing else, that the specially designed padded traps are indeed relatively gentle with their victims.
Spring and summer are always slow, notes Person, recalling that last fall they once caught five coyotes in a day. ``It all averages out,'' he concludes.
Bit by bit, the two researchers are piecing together a clearer picture of the animals' social structures -- territorial instincts, stability of male-female pairings, dispersal of the young. They've found that coyote society has a few mavericks who live a solitary life without mating or carving out a territory of their own. And they've had young animals that have set off in search of unclaimed land turn up 60 miles or more away, which would seem to indicate that the immediate Champlain Valley area is pretty densely populated, by coyote standards. A formidable predator
The UVM researchers have developed a strong respect for their bushy-tailed subjects. While keeping an eye peeled for his well-hidden traps, all of which are located near a roadway for efficiency's sake, Person observes that the animals are ``the most formidable predator in this area now,'' succeeding the bobcat, which is smaller, and the long-since-extirpated wolf. ``They're so adaptable,'' he continues. ``They have the ability to survive in all kinds of environments.''
``They just thrive,'' adds Ms. Ingle. Her main interest in the study is the gray and red foxes that sometimes find their way into one of Person's traps. They are native predators that apparently coexist uneasily with the coyotes, who have been known to kill their smaller canine cousins. Ingle is intent on understanding the relationship between the two fox species and the coyote, all of which establish definite territories. Do boundaries overlap? Do foxes just roam between coyote ``zones''?
Previous coyote studies have been done in the West and in the Maine forests, but what sets the Vermont project apart is its focus on a heavily farmed region with a relatively large human population, notes Dave Hirth, the UVM professor supervising the study. He's very pleased that the Person-Ingle team has been able to capture and tag 27 coyotes so far. That's a good-sized sample, he says, and should generate a lot of new data on the creatures. The fine art of trapping coyotes
Trapping coyotes is no mean trick, by the way. ``There's at least as much art as there is science to catching them,'' says Dr. Hirth. Person explains that they had little success before getting in touch with Bob Hoffman, a local trapper who specializes in coyotes. From Mr. Hoffman, Person learned the intricacies of scenting the traps with the right odors for a particular time of year. A worn-looking wooden box in the back of Person's truck carries a collection of little glass bottles with such labels as ``Wilely Red'' and ``Beaver Castors.''
The project is underwritten by the Vermont Department of Fish and Game -- which, like most people up here, wants to know more about these recent emigrants. The coyote's migratory ways have taken it through the upper Middle West, into Canada, and down into New England, Hirth explains. The first coyotes were spotted in Vermont back in 1948. Estimates of the number of coyotes now in the state range from a low of 2,000 to as many as 4,000.
``In 35 years or so, animals that had never been here before suddenly expanded throughout the state,'' Hirth observes. As they migrated, the coyotes apparently picked up some new habits, as well as different physical traits, possibly from interbreeding with some species of wolves in Canada, he explains.
The Vermont variety is roughly 10 pounds heavier than its Western kin, with a much more varied coat color (from dark gray to lighter shades) and less of a tendency to utter the familiar howl.
From the information the UVM team has managed to amass, the wild canines have found this part of the country -- so different from their Western haunts -- a very hospitable place indeed. Food ranges from mice and rabbits to woodchucks, skunks, and even an occasional deer or sheep. The latter fare, of course, is what has given the coyote such a bad name in the West, where they are regularly hunted or poisoned.
Here, farmers usually keep their sheep within small fenced pastures rather than on an open range. That minimizes coyote problems, says Hirth. Still, there have been rare reports of sheep being killed and, less often, young calves being taken.
``It has the potential of being a real problem,'' Hirth says. In addition, trappers in the state are concerned about coyotes killing foxes, and hunters worry about the predator's impact on deer herds.
``I don't think they're a menace'' to farm animals, says Person. Marauding packs of domestic dogs pose a much greater threat to livestock, in his view. Small wild game is plentiful, Person points out, and the coyotes also consume the calf and heifer carcasses disposed by dairy farmers. With the thousands of rodents they devour each year, coyotes -- and foxes too -- are ``for the most part doing a lot more good than harm,'' says Ingle.
Hirth is of the view that coyotes and Vermonters can probably peacefully coexist. With the coyotes' renowned adaptability, humans may have little choice in the matter.