South Jersey residents may have played a big role in bringing coyotes to New Jersey, where they now thrive in about 95 percent of the state, according to one expert on the canines.
Coyotes are native to western states, said Andrew Burnett, principal biologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Upland Project.
They were first verified in the wild in New Jersey in 1948 in Lower Township.
But in 1930, a Cape May resident donated a female coyote to the Philadelphia Zoo, and in 1936, someone from Pleasantville gave a male coyote to the zoo, said Burnett at a presentation last week at the Pinelands Commission.
“Put the two together,” said Burnett. “They obviously came here in the back of someone’s station wagon” after a trip out west.
Some researchers, however, insist the coyotes made their own way East, he said, becoming a larger version called the Eastern Coyote in response to the new climate and environment.
In favor of migration is the record of first sightings of wild coyotes in other states. They were seen as early as 1919 in Ohio, in the 1920s in upstate New York, the 1930s in Pennsylvania, and in 1936 in Massachusetts and Maine. There was an unverified report in New Jersey in 1939, then the verified one in 1948.
That would argue for an easterly migration, he said.
“Maybe they got here on their own, maybe they had a little help,” Burnett said. “It was a combination of both, perhaps.”
However they got here, they now fill a niche left open when the gray wolf was eradicated in New Jersey in the 19th Century, he said.
Coyotes feed primarily on rabbits, squirrels, moles and voles, which keeps the rodent species in check, according to the DEP web site.
But they are also causing an increasing number of calls to the DEP by people worried about encountering a coyote, and complaints by hunters that the canine is killing too many deer.
One response has been to hunt and trap them, even though they are closely related to and bear a remarkable resemblance to our pets.
They are so closely related to domestic dogs the two can mate, and there is evidence coyotes in some areas were mating with wolves as far back as 250 to 300 years ago, according to a 2011 research paper by Princeton University researcher Bridgett vonHoldt.
VonHoldt is surveying coyote DNA from many states and hopes to have data in about eight months, “so everyone knows about their local coyotes and their evolutionary history,” she said.
She said the coyote in the Northeast has a unique genetic makeup that includes wolf genes, but “whether that includes New Jersey we don’t know yet.”
Coyotes were first given furbearer status for trapping in 1980, Burnett said, and over time, more methods of killing them have been made legal.
Trapping kills the vast majority of those harvested. From 2005 to 2013, trappers killed 1,458, while bow and firearm hunters took about 1,000 from 1997 to 2015, he said.
Their pelts sell for about $25 apiece, Burnett said.
“Personally I don’t think they kill as many deer as people think,” said deer hunter Don Hamlin, of Moorestown, who attended Burnett’s talk.
He said he put out a trail camera over deer bait at Brendan T. Byrne State Forest in Pemberton Township, Burlington County, and has seen a coyote on it only once. The camera has captured plenty of other animals, and even naked people, he said.
“It just passed through, ate some pumpkin seed from the deer bait and continued on its way,” Hamlin said. “For as many as there are supposed to be, I always thought I’d have them on the camera a lot more.”
Statewide, the deer harvest has stayed about the same since 1993, even though the number of coyotes has exploded since then and the number of hunters has decreased. That argues against the coyote decimating deer herds, Burnett said.
Coyotes eat fawns if they come upon them, but they do not actively hunt them, he said.
The fawn’s natural instinct is to freeze in place, making it easy prey not just for coyotes, but also for foxes here and bears and bobcats in the northern part of the state, Burnett said.
While there is no doubt coyotes have been successful in increasing their numbers, despite having a mating period of just three to five days per year, few people actually see them.
Burnett has only seen a live coyote twice in the wild, but has studied carcasses from animals hit by cars or harvested by hunters.
Coyotes are shy of humans and don’t cause problems unless people do something foolish such as leave food out for them, he said.
It can also be a problem if people try to domesticate coyote pups.
We know about the Philadelphia Zoo donations because of a report by Frederick A. Ulmer Jr. in a 1949 publication of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia.
“The records certainly indicate that coyotes are commonly kept as pets,” Ulmer wrote. “A certain percentage of these could be expected to escape, and some of the rest might conceivably be released deliberately.”
Once they left puppyhood, Burnett speculated the South Jersey coyote pets must have gotten pretty difficult to handle. That’s when they probably took a car ride to a remote place in the woods, Burnett said.