Scientists on the hunt for coyotes in St. Louis’ Forest Park

Scientists on the hunt for coyotes in St. Louis’ Forest Park


ST. LOUIS — If a tree falls in Forest Park, someone will likely hear or even see it. That’s because every square foot of the urban oasis — one of the largest, most visited, best-funded in the country — is accounted for.

Still, the 1,371-acre park isn’t fully understood.

A team of highly educated scientists, on the hunt for a new predator in town, has been probing the southwest corner for months. They’ve been quiet about the effort. They don’t want curious humans fouling the odors of roadkill and raw chicken emanating from their trap in the woods.

“Keep your eyes open,” wildlife veterinarian Sharon Deem announced during an evening outing on Feb. 21 to the secret spot. “You might see a coyote.”

Deem, 60, director of the St. Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine, has tracked wild elephants in Africa in hopes of protecting the species from decline. She spent three years following giant tortoises around the Galapagos Islands. In Bolivia, she saved river dolphins from receding waters and commercial agriculture development.

People are also reading…

Now, she walks to the job site for the Forest Park Living Lab coyote project.

An occasional coyote used to amble down the MetroLink tracks, maybe duck its narrow head into the park for a night or two, then move on. These days, there are more of them. Coyotes have been reported anywhere from Steinberg Skating Rink to Kennedy Forest to Art Hill.

And some seem to be staying longer. A litter of five, caught on camera, was born last spring. One, found abandoned, had canine distemper virus and died. A car fatally hit a second young coyote on Lindell Boulevard. It’s unclear if the others survived and stuck around to repopulate, but distinctive, high-pitched yipping has been heard.

“They respond to the sirens, which is very cool,” said Stella Uiterwaal, 27, a postdoctoral researcher at Washington University, heavily involved in the coyote project.

Coyotes in Forest Park

Scientists with the Forest Park Living Lab collaborative captured this photo of a coyote with trail camera in Forest Park in May of 2023.

The team of scientists wants to know how healthy the animals are, where they go and hunt or scavenge for food. A lot of effort and resources are spent trying to restore the natural areas of the park. Are coyotes hanging out there to prey on rodents, raccoons and some of the new turkeys and deer? Or are they drawn to places where there is trash?

“What are these coyotes telling us about the natural habitat?” Uiterwaal asks.

To work toward getting answers, they decided two coyotes needed to be safely caught and anesthetized with enough time to gather samples and attach GPS collars around their necks. No small task, as it turns out.

This past winter, they first set out a roughly 3 feet by 8 feet rectangular metal trap in the woods and some stationary cameras to monitor it from a distance. They left raw chicken a few feet away to help draw the coyotes in and get comfortable seeing the trap. Then they baited inside it.

After a few tries, a coyote took the chicken and fled. The team said they were even more excited once coyotes started peeking into the trap with regularity and walking calmly through the open doors.

The trap needed to be baited every night so the coyotes would expect food to be there.

During the Feb. 21 outing, Uiterwaal climbed through the trap wearing blue latex gloves. She hung a raw chicken leg above an old opossum carcass scooped up from a park roadway. Then she and Deem walked away.

Urban coyotes in Forest Park

Stella Uiterwaal hangs a raw chicken drumstick in a coyote trap in Forest Park on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. She regularly baits the trap to get coyotes used to entering the device so one could be captured, examined and collared with a GPS transmitter on a later date.

They didn’t arm the trap because the special collars hadn’t yet arrived by mail. It was another practice run to measure when and if a coyote ate the chicken. Sometimes it took just 15 minutes. Other times two hours. Or not at all.

Even though coyotes increasingly thrive in cities, the animals are sensitive to human activity. The scientists had the best results when Uiterwaal baited the trap.

“They like her smell, we’ve decided,” Deem said.

But there are lots of competing smells and noises to potentially scare the animals off. Millions of people visit the park each year. About 30 yards from the trap, a forgotten to-go cup of coffee sat on a bench. A shirtless man ran on a nearby trail. Others walked their dogs.

Human activity died off after the sun sank. Soon, the zoo parking lot sat empty and a big moon rose into the sky. On the south façade of the art museum, lights illuminated an inscription: “Art still has truth. Take refuge there.”

Creatures, large and small, took refuge in the dark forest.

Urban coyotes in Forest Park

A raccoon pulls itself out of a rubbish bin in Forest Park after finding a treat early Thursday, March 21, 2024.

The crunch of something walking through the leaves could be heard over the rumble of traffic on Highway 40. It was a deer, followed by another, and another, and another. A large object, about the size of a dog, darted by, too far away to identify.

Around the same time, at nearby Pat Connolly Tavern, Charles Walsh bellied up for a quick pint of Urban Chestnut Forest Park Pilsner. The retired high school environmental science teacher grew up in St. Louis and has seen the park transformed since the 1980s.

“The trails are fantastic,” said Walsh, 72. “It’s home for me. It’s in top, top shape.”

He said he walks the park perimeter several times a week and hadn’t spotted any coyotes.

“I am assuming they are everywhere,” he said. “Their territory keeps getting torn down.”

That night, no coyotes showed up for a practice run through the open trap. One did the next, though, just 25 minutes after Uiterwaal hung the raw chicken.

Nature’s Balance

Coyotes, icons of the West and Saturday morning cartoons, have been expanding their range since the early 1900s. They are now found across country. The loss of wolves and natural habitat are key factors.

So is coyote versatility.

“They are seeing cities as suitable space where they can find what they need and avoid competition from other territory holders,” said Javier Monzón, who studies coyote genetics and eating habits at Pepperdine University in California.

While urbanization has a negative effect on the genetic diversity of coyotes, compared to coyotes living in more rural areas, he said, the omnivores will eat almost anything and can live on a much smaller swath of terrain than other predators such as mountain lions. He said the average home range of coyotes he studied in Los Angeles was about 5 square kilometers.

“They tend to do well because they are never picky,” he said.

By now, they’re frequenting New York City’s Central Park and the Bronx. One ventured inside a Chicago Loop sandwich shop and became a momentary media sensation.

A Denver study signals that coyotes may be bolder in urban areas. In February, a coyote reportedly bit three children in an Arlington, Texas, park before being captured. 

But wildlife experts stress that coyote attacks are extremely rare.

Carol Mundy, a naturalist in Cincinnati, told a group of concerned residents that she’d be much more concerned about dogs running around off leash than coyotes — even if they can easily climb a 5-foot-tall fence and run 40 mph.

“They really don’t want to be interrupting our daily lives,” Mundy told the group. “It’s just like any other neighbor. Sometimes there are conflicts.”

Amy Witt, park ecologist for Forest Park Forever, the $200 million nonprofit that works in partnership with the city, said no attacks have been reported. They received calls, mainly from people walking their dogs.

“A coyote existing is not an imminent threat,” said Witt, 38.

At least not to humans. She wonders if coyotes are the reason why she hasn’t seen any fox kits in the park in the past five years. Meanwhile, there are more wild turkey and deer, which damage tree saplings and like to eat tulip bulbs.

“Coyotes are making those deer keep moving,” Witt said. “I have seen them chasing them a couple times.”

She’d like to say that restoration efforts drew coyotes to the park, but it’s uncertain.

“Somehow there is food being supplied to create an ecosystem that is able to support a higher tier of predator,” she said.

Deer in Forest Park

A deer jumps over a paved pathway near the St. Louis Art Museum on Sunday, March 31, 2024. Many wild animals including a small herd of deer call Forest Park home.

Great teeth

The team of scientists with Forest Park Living Lab were eager to start figuring out the coyote mystery sooner by trapping two of them, but the GPS collars got stuck on back order. The longer they waited, the closer they came to the birth of an untold number of spring bunnies that are perhaps more fun for a coyote to eat than raw chicken dangling from hard wire.

On the night of March 20, they were ready to at least try.

At 7:15 p.m., Uiterwaal hung the bait as usual, only this time she armed the trap and retreated to a zoo employee break room to monitor camera footage synced with her cellphone. There, she united with other team members who signed up for the mission.

Deem had red darts drawn, each with enough drugs for about 40 minutes of anesthesia.

Urban coyotes in Forest Park

Dr. Sharon Deem prepares drugs to be used in a dart to anesthetize a coyote in Forest Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

Jamie Palmer, a wildlife biologist with an expertise in reptiles, was ready to swab the coyote’s nose, mouth, eyes and rectum and collect other health data, while Deem’s husband, Stephen Blake, a movement ecologist at St. Louis University, would jot it all down on a clipboard.

They were prepared to wait hours or even go home empty-handed, but the prep work quickly paid off. At 8 p.m. Uiterwaal’s cellphone pinged with fresh images. A smile spread across her face.

Urban coyotes in Forest Park

Stella Uiterwaal, left, and Dr. Sharon Deem look at a photo from a remote camera that shows that an anesthetized coyote they trapped in Forest Park was ready to be examined for research purposes on Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

“The trap is closed,” she said.

“Let’s go,” said Deem.

They grabbed their gear. Within four minutes, Deem was in the woods. She darted the coyote and waited in silence for a few minutes before pulling the unconscious animal from the trap.

Urban coyotes in Forest Park

An unconscious coyote is removed from a trap in Forest Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2024, by Jamie Palmer, left, and Dr. Sharon Deem as they prepare to take measurements and samples from the animal before releasing it with a GPS tracking collar.

At 8:16, they carried it out of the dark on tarp and laid it on the ground of a lighted workstation in the zoo maintenance yard. It was the moment the team had been preparing for and the coyote’s ragged appearance struck them hard.

Severe mange made it look more like a hyena. Other than on the head and neck, the animal’s body was mainly hairless.

“Bloody hell,” said Blake, 58, originally from England.

Urgent processing began, first with a scale.

The young adult male weighed 31 pounds. They hooked up a device to his tongue that beeped. His heart rate was initially a little high, but all was fine.

Palmer swabbed the fluids, collected fur and other samples. Deem drew a few vials of blood. She used a topical to treat the mange and two hot spot skin wounds, apparently from deep, persistent itching.

“Poor you,” said Deem.

Urban coyotes in Forest Park

Dr. Sharon Deem, from left, Stephen Blake, and Stella Uiterwaal work quickly to complete their examination and sample gathering from an anesthetized coyote in Forest Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. The coyote also had a GPS collar attached to its neck so the researchers could track him.

Uiterwaal bolted on the bulky GPS tracking collar and measured body length. Eyes, ears, and nostrils were fine.

Deem ran her hands over the lean animal’s notably swollen abdomen. Not to worry, he’d likely eaten a huge meal.

“It’s got some good-looking teeth,” said Blake.

Urban coyotes in Forest Park

Researchers examine the teeth of an anesthetized coyote that was caught in a baited trap in Forest Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. Before the coyote was released, a GPS tracking collar was attached to its neck so the researchers could study his movements.

At 8:42 p.m., approaching the 40-minute mark, Deem injected the coyote with an antidote. They put him in a covered dog crate, placed it in a heated room for a few hours to recover and regain consciousness.

Urban coyotes in Forest Park

Wildlife biologist Jamie Palmer checks on a coyote as it recovers inside a crate from being anesthetized on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. Researchers gave the animal several hours to regain its wits, then released it back into Forest Park with a GPS collar.

All clear shortly after 1 a.m., they took the crate by pickup truck to a clearing along John F. Kennedy Trail. They opened the crate. The coyote waited, perhaps to listen, then shot out with a bang. He zigzagged like a ricochet bullet, dashing into the dark woods.

The team celebrated a successful mission, even if went differently than expected.

Uiterwaal had been admiring images from the stationary cameras of what looked like healthy and hairy coyotes. She wants to know if and where they are staying in Forest Park.

The near-hairless fella they’d just caught and released with a $1,575 collar was likely a long-range drifter.

“I guess we’ll see,” Uiterwaal said.

Urban coyotes in Forest Park

A coyote bolts to freedom after being outfitted with a GPS collar and released on Thursday, March. 21, 2024. Earlier in the night Stella Uiterwaal, right, and others were part of a team that trapped, anesthetized, and examined the coyote.

City living

Some of the various animals the Forest Park Living Lab tracks with electronic devices are named after elements found in nature.

Mercury, a barred owl, lives in the eastern half of Kennedy Forest. Copper the red-tailed hawk flew north about 100 miles, just past the Illinois River, and went on a few other jaunts before settling, for now, in and around St. Louis University.

The first coyote is named Silver. The team of scientists is just in the beginning stages of tracking and studying him, but he seems to have already become more appealing.

He was much easier to trap than the second and final coyote, which took multiple late-night attempts until they succeeded last Monday, hours after the solar eclipse. Genetic testing is being done to see if Silver is one of the five pups born in Forest Park last spring. If that’s the case, he may be a dispersing male, trying to find his place in the world.  

Though Silver appeared to be just passing through, Uiterwaal wonders if he’s circling back to the park.

“It’s been great seeing what he’s doing so far,” she said.

After he was released in the early hours of March 21, Silver hung low in the Dogtown neighborhood two days, then beelined northeast 2 miles, for a three-day stay in the Ville.

Later, he cut through Fairground Park and settled around Penrose, in an area with a lot of trees and overgrowth, just inside Interstate 70, before going west four miles, to the fancy Parkview neighborhood in University City. From there, he hit the River Des Peres and the far eastern edge of Overland, north of Olive Boulevard, just inside Interstate 170.

“It seems like he’s mostly moving around at night, which is probably what you would expect for an urban coyote trying to avoid people,” Uiterwaal said.

Data comes in on his whereabouts about every two days. There’s also a mechanism that measures activity levels. The scientists paid an extra $400 for a feature that will free Silver from the tracking collar after one year of service. It’s programmed to drop off on Feb. 28, 2025.

Will Silver make it through another winter?

Where will he go and what will he teach us?

Does Silver know Solar, the second coyote? She appears to be healthy, young and pregnant, expected to whelp within a week or two.

In a bustling metro area of 4.3 million people, Yale University wildlife biologist Nyeema Harris ventures into isolated thickets to study Detroit’s most elusive residents — coyotes, foxes, raccoons and skunks among them. Harris and colleagues have placed trail cameras in woodsy sections of 25 city parks for the past five years. They’ve recorded thousands of images of animals that emerge mostly at night to roam and forage, revealing a wild side many locals might not know exists.


Source link

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top