Coyotes on Delmarva

by Dave Wilson

Naturalist Dave Wilson shares his conversation about coyotes on Delmarva with Dr. Aaron Hogue.

Dr. Aaron Hogue returns today for the second of a two-part series on the loss of predators on the Delmarva Peninsula. Today we’ll discuss the status of coyotes here. Dr. Hogue is a biology professor at Salisbury University where he has worked for the past 11 years. He holds a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from Northwestern University in Chicago. His specialties are in mammalogy and evolution and he has done extensive research studying the nexus between human activities, terrestrial habitat destruction, and species declines.

Dave Wilson:
Today I want to continue our discussion about the loss of mammalian predators by focusing on coyotes. First Dr. Hogue, do we have a sense of the status of coyotes on the Eastern Shore?

Dr. Aaron Hogue:
"Yes, on the Eastern Shore and in the state of Maryland, DNR considers them to be present in every county. Delaware DNREC has stated that they are established in the state of Delaware which means they are probably found in all or most counties of Delaware. In Virginia there are records of them from Accomack County and they are also present on islands at the southern tip of the peninsula so they are essentially peninsula wide. "

Dave Wilson:
Are these the same as western coyotes? I know coyotes aren’t necessarily native to the East Coast. How big are they and is there any work on their DNA?

Dr. Aaron Hogue:
"There was a single species of coyote in North America when Europeans first arrived. There is some controversy about the distribution of that species as well as other members of the genus canis but it appears that coyote were found largely in the central part of North America and other species of canis including gray wolves and possibly red and/or eastern wolves were found to the north and in the eastern part of the continent. The persecution and eventual extirpation of wolves in the eastern United States essentially created a vacuum that the coyote then was able to fill, so what ended up happening is coyote began to move eastward. And there is some question about how exactly that happened but it looks like they spread east in waves –a northern wave that occurred probably earlier starting in the early 1900s and then a southern wave that started a little bit later."

"In both cases they periodically encountered some of the remaining wolves and interbred with them. They also encountered domestic dogs and interbred with them. What ended up happening for our region is that those two waves converged in the mid-Atlantic. The earliest record I have of coyote on the eastern shore of the peninsula is 1921 in Kent County. And that suggests that the local coyote are probably from that northern wave since it was early in the 1900s. In any case, if you look at the DNA of eastern coyote what you will find is that there are very few that are pure coyote. Most of them contain some amount of wolf and dog DNA, roughly around 10% so what that means morphologically is that eastern coyote are typically somewhere intermediate between western coyotes and wolves. They tend to be larger. I think western coyote around 20 to 30 pounds on average, whereas eastern coyote are little bit larger in the range of 30 to 40 pounds which is still nowhere near the size of grey wolves which are three times as large as western coyote."

Dave Wilson:
What are these species eating on the shore?

Dr. Aaron Hogue:
"There aren't any studies to my knowledge about what they're actually eating. Coyote, throughout their range, vary their diet based on what other species are present and also seasonally so in many parts of the country during the summer they are pretty omnivorous so they eat berries, a lot of small mammals, and other small vertebrates. In the winter time when those resources are less available, they start to shift to larger mammals including deer. There is evidence that they not only eat deer but will also take down mostly sick or injured adult deer, but they also scavenge pretty heavily on the carcasses of dead deer."

Dave Wilson:
What’s the sense of their impact on biodiversity on the Eastern Shore?

Dr. Aaron Hogue:
"With the lack of any large predators they very likely fill a role somewhere between something like a cougar or a wolf and smaller carnivores. And so they probably are still somewhat omnivorous in the summer and they are still taking larger mammals in the winter and deer fawn in the spring which means that they are serving a role in regulating those populations. And from an ecological perspective, the fact that whitetail deer are so abundant on the Eastern Shore and have such dramatic effects on vegetation and ultimately on other vertebrates that depend on that vegetation they can play an important ecological role potentially in minimizing that negative impact and the impact from mid-size or what we called “mesocarnivores” by feeding on them and taking out fox and other midsize predators including cats. That also is very likely performing an ecological service in minimizing their impact on small vertebrates, particularly breeding birds."

Dave Wilson:
So how are they managed by the state? Are coyotes protected in any way or do you think the state might do a better job of managing coyotes?

Dr. Aaron Hogue:
"See, the problem is that the state sees them as not native which is technically correct and from that perspective there's no reason why they would want or need to regulate them. The problem is that we've extricated all of the large carnivores and so in the absence of a willingness on the part of the state to reintroduce large predators on the Eastern Shore, where they are completely absent, they have the potential to provide that ecological service by regulating mid-size carnivores and controlling even whitetail deer so I would say yes if the state isn't willing to reintroduce a bobcat or black bear or even wolves to the Eastern Shore then the state should definitely consider curtailing their very permissive trapping and hunting regulations on coyote so that they can at least perform somewhat of an apex predator ecological service."

Dave Wilson:
I know as a kid growing up watching Little Red Riding Hood and hearing all these stories I have the sense that people think coyotes are dangerous to people. Is this a myth or is there some truth to this? Can you elaborate on that?

Dr. Aaron Hogue:
"They don't pose a danger to children. They do, however, pose a danger to cats that are running free. In areas where coyote occur and have been studied and their diet analyzed, domestic cats often comprise part of their diet. From someone's perspective that has an outdoor cat, that is obviously a concern but if you step back and look at the devastating impact that cats have on songbird populations cats shouldn't be out of the house to begin with so the fact that coyote are actually controlling those populations and performing an ecological service is allowing some of those birds to survive and even small mammals to survive and perform the ecological roles that they're supposed to provide."


Part I - Delmarva’s Apex Predators
Delmarva Almanac

Aaron Hogue
Salisbury University Faculty Biography

Apex Predator

Coyotes in Maryland
Maryland DNR

Delaware’s Wildlife Species Of Greatest Conservation Need - Chapter 1 (PDF)
Delaware DNREC