Island farmers were alarmed this week to learn of the possible presence of a visitor from the mainland: a coyote.
Richard Andre, the director of Vineyard Power and owner of Cleveland Farm, claims that he has seen the coyote on three separate occasions at his West Tisbury property off Old County Road, the last time being late last Saturday night. Mr. Andre recognized the animal from its bushy tail and alerted Island naturalist Gus Ben David, who on Wednesday called Mr. Andre a “very credible witness” based on his description of the animal. Mr. Andre said he has been awakened by the coyote late at night, once even mistaking it for his son.
“It sounds a lot like a human cry,” he told the Gazette.
Mr. Andre suspects the animal was eyeing his chickens for a fresh kill.
Last year results from a sample of scat taken from Seven Gates Farm in Chilmark and analyzed at a laboratory in California showed a 97 per cent consistency with coyote DNA. Since those results, Mr. Ben David said there have been no reports of the wild canine until this week.
“That was in the spring, so we said let’s wait and see what the hunting season brings when the leaves are all down and all the gang’s out in the woods,” Mr. Ben David said. “Let’s see if we get a specimen in because nobody wants those things to proliferate here on the Vineyard. Lo and behold there was not a track, not a sighting, not a sign. I get every report of anything on the Vineyard that moves, creeps or crawls and I’ve had no other report up until this week when Mr. Andre called.”
Mr. Ben David is unsure whether this animal is the same one believed to be present on the Island last spring, or whether there may be more than one. He said coyotes pose a singular threat to Island livestock and wildlife and that the focus now should be on eliminating the creature.
“It’s a highly invasive species and this is an insular situation,” the noted naturalist said. “When you introduce a top-order predator like that you cause irreparable harm to your native wildlife, but agriculturally for people with sheep or free-range chickens it’s a disaster. They’ll also grab your cat, they’ll grab your small dog, any small mammal they can catch.”
Environmental police officer Matt Bass said despite the animal’s possible destructive influence on Island fauna, there is a statewide hunting season for coyotes from October through March that Islanders must observe.
“Last year when this came up I asked Mass Wildlife what their position was,” Mr. Bass said. “For what it’s worth the Vineyard is an Island but they are not going to consider wildlife on it any differently than in other parts of the state.”
He also said that farmers are allowed to protect their property if they find a coyote attacking their livestock.
“A landowner could take some action outside of the hunting season and they would have to report that,” Mr. Bass said. “I probably wouldn’t come up there and make some extensive effort to get rid of a problem animal, though. I’m interested in it but I’m not going to be taking any additional measures to either keep it safe or eliminate it.”
Mr. Ben David said there are telltale signs for property owners to distinguish coyotes from domestic dogs.
“Usually they have a sort of a loping gait, they saunter along, it’s sort of a fast trot,” he said. “Then there is the pointed ears, the pointed nose, the slant of the eye and most of all that nice, bushy tail.”
There still is the obvious question of how a coyote managed to cross the water that separates the Vineyard from the mainland (Coyotes are a presence now on the nearby Elizabeth Islands.) Mr. Ben David said there are two possibilities: Either the animal was brought across by a human or it swam. Mr. Bass is fairly positive that the coyote took the plunge but Mr. Ben David is somewhat skeptical.
“Animals don’t just look across and see another island and say, I want to go over there,” he said. “They don’t have contemplative powers. The reason we see deer swimming across the Sound involuntarily is usually because dogs have chased them into the salt water. They [deer] have hollow hair and they’re much more buoyant than a canine.”
He added: “Just think, do you know a dog that would be able to swim across that Sound?”