If coyotes get a foothold on the Vineyard, the results could be disastrous, for farmers, landowners and the native wild animal population on the Island.
This was the somber message from Augustus Ben David 2nd, a former director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and one of the Island’s most respected naturalists, who spoke at a gathering at the Howes House on Monday.
Attended by a small group of Island farmers and part of the Vineyard’s legislative delegation, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the threat of coyotes here, and what can be done about it.
Last month Mr. Ben David reported the first confirmed evidence that there is at least one coyote on the Island, after scat samples were sent to a California laboratory for testing and came back 97 per cent positive. The samples were found on the north shore of the Vineyard, where there has been other evidence of coyote presence, including large holes dug in fields — far too large to have been dug by a dog, skunk or raccoon.
Coyotes are present on Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands.
The meeting was called by Jim Powell, a high school teacher who raises sheep in West Tisbury. Also attending were Sgt. Matt Bass of the state environmental police, Cape and Islands Rep. Timothy Madden and Vineyard legislative liaison Nell Coogan. Arnold Fischer of Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury, Mitchell Posin of the Allen Farm in Chilmark and Allen Healy of Mermaid Farm in Chilmark were there too, along with Ed and Barbara Child of West Tisbury.
Mr. Ben David spoke about his efforts to help residents of Naushon control their coyote population. He said based on his experience on that island in the nearby Elizabeth islands chain, an expanding population of coyotes on the Vineyard would have far-reaching and devastating impacts. He bluntly advocated early eradication, before the coyotes are established, as the only effective method of control.
Mr. Ben David said coyotes are elusive. In all his years working on Naushon, he said he has yet to see one. Yet their presence is everywhere. He said no one on Naushon leaves sheep out at night. He described coyotes as incessant predators who roam the beaches, leaving only their footprints behind. “They are marine animals. They walk the beaches all the time,” he said.
Mr. Ben David showed the audience the skeleton of a coyote’s head. He said it was found dead on a Vineyard north shore beach in the fall of 2004.
He said a mother coyote is capable of having up to eight pups in a year. One coyote on Naushon was found to weigh 56 pounds. “Once they get established here, it will be almost impossible to eliminate them,” Mr. Ben David warned. He continued:
“They are apex predators, a massive invasive species. They are the perfect predator.” He said coyotes are extremely adaptable; when they cannot find meat they become vegetarians.
Mr. Healy, who owns a small dairy farm on Middle Road in Chilmark, said he was certain he heard a coyote yipping in the night about four years ago.
Mr. Fischer, a sheep farmer, wondered what could be done to prevent coyotes from becoming established once they are here.
Mr. Posin, also a sheep farmer, asked about the rights of sheep farmers to shoot a coyote if they see one. He said sheep farmers already have longstanding permission to shoot a dog that is threatening their sheep.
Massachusetts does have a hunting season for coyotes, Sergeant Bass said. The season runs from Columbus Day to March 7. Hunters can use shotgun, rifle, muzzle loaded shotgun, a handgun and bow and arrow.
Mr. Bass was asked whether the season could be expanded. Mr. Madden said he would look into it.
Mr. Ben David said the most important step to take at the moment is to get the word out to the community, so as to better document what is here.
He said anyone who sees a coyote should notify either him or the state environmental police. (Mr. Ben David’s telephone number is 508-627-5634; to reach the environmental police call 508-693-1212). He said more information is needed, and photographs would help.
Mr. Powell said later: “We are concerned about our animals, and people and safety. We don’t want people to have run-ins with coyotes.”