SEBRING – In late 2012, Jimmy Wohl and his ranch hands at Rafter T Ranch found two calves dead among the approximately 1,000 head of cow that roam the ranch’s 5,178 acres.
It wasn’t hard for Wohl to determine the calves on the southeastern Highlands County ranch were killed by a predator, namely one or more coyotes.
Over the past 10 to 20 years, coyotes - whose original territories were the deserts of the southwest - have migrated east, headed into the Deep South and in with no natural enemies have made their ways into central and south Florida and sometimes into their human neighbors’ yards.
To help curb the rapid rise in population of “Canis latrans” in Florida and particularly around Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began in late 2011 a two-year project to study the stomach contents of urban and suburban coyotes - ones that are found in wild and developed areas.
The study has been co-coordinated by Danny Caudill, an upland game bird research biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Southwest Region Office, Gainesville. He said many of the study’s specimens are contributed by Avon Park hunters Gator Howerton and Raymond McIntyre.
Howerton, a civil engineer, and McIntyre, Highlands County property appraiser, said the fish and wildlife commission study is wrapping up and they’re now harvesting specimens for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), which is undertaking a similar study.
On land north of Sebring, the men set up gear Friday morning for a hunt that night. Howerton said there’s no lack of coyotes in southern Highlands and eastern Hardee counties. Over the past year and a half, he said the Conservation Commission asked for 150 dead coyotes: they caught 232.
Using a swamp buggy, portable hunting stand and an electronic device with recorded sounds of coyote prey’s voices - mice, rabbits, small rodents - the men spend two or three nights a month in forests, swamps and near dairy pastures ready to aim and fire. Howerton said after set up and sundown, it doesn’t take long for a curious coyote to venture into gun sight range.
Since coyotes - prolific breeders that can bear six to 12 puppies a litter with 50 percent survival rates - are considered nuisance animals in Florida, all the men need to hunt them is a license and permission by landowners.
“They’re (coyotes) going to be here no matter. We’re both from hunting families, so this is just a way to extend that hobby,” said McIntyre. “It’s a challenge sitting up there (hunting stand), being eaten by mosquitoes and waiting. They’re smart animals, all the keen senses they have.”
Howerton and McIntyre, who aren’t financially compensated for their work by the agencies, said since they’ve begun hunting for IFAS, since April, they’ve sent in about 20 coyotes.
Howerton said hunting is best in summer once the coyotes have already had pups and better respond to the prey recordings. After one is shot, it’s taken to Howerton or McIntyre’s home in a bag provided by the agency, data about the animal is recorded and they’re stored in a freezer until the researching agency picks them up.
“This is a pretty unique (hunting) niche: predator hunting in central Florida,” said McIntyre. “Lots of the people I talk to don’t realize just how many coyotes we have here. A lot don’t even know we have coyotes in Florida at all.”
Caudill said the Conservation Commission examined in Florida over 230 coyotes - which are omnivores, eating meat and plants - many of which contained cat carcasses from not only Polk, Highlands and Hardee, but Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, too. He said since the field aspect of the Conservation Commission’s study is done, data research should wrap up by early- to mid-fall 2014.
And for those concerned about any drastic reduction in coyote populations, Caudill said there are more than enough to sustain their presence.
“It’s important people remember they’re (coyotes) a nuisance species in the state of Florida. There are just so many in so many places and would be almost impossible to shoot them out of existence.”
Conservation Commission studies have shown a coyote can be range up to 15 miles in rural areas, but only three in urban areas. Caudill said the animal doesn’t have to travel as much and all it needs is within a fifth of the area.
In the process, the more fragmented an area, the more possibilities of human-coyote - 20 to 35 pounds, gray fur and brown or tan spots - interaction. The predator has been found in all 67 of Florida’s counties.
“It’s just important people give them the respect they would give any other wild animal. They’re very shy and will usually move on given the opportunity,” he said.
As for the increase of coyotes and threat to livestock or pets, Wohl thinks monitoring and culling threatening coyotes in Highlands County is the proper precaution to take.
“There’s definitely an increase so It’s really a good thing they hunt them. They’ve become feral animals in a sense. Every one we can weed out we’ll weed out” he said.
Caudill said if a coyote is seen, it should be reported to the Conservation Commission regional office, (863) 648-3200.