Ana Maria Sierra is certain of it.
She’s lived in the North End of Tacoma for 20 years, she told me, and she’s never seen so many coyotes — or heard of so many sightings in her neighborhood.
Sure, in years past there was the occasional coyote — perhaps a straggler made its way up from the gulch now and again — but nothing like this.
This year? The last couple months?
It’s been different. Sierra has no doubt.
“There’s a lot more,” she told me, without hesitation.
Days earlier, Sierra had started the #TacomaCoyotes Facebook group. By the time of our conversation on Thursday, it had swelled to nearly 100 members. The page now features a growing collection of photos and videos, mixed with posts expressing everything from fear (particularly about the safety of pets) to appreciation for the four-legged scavengers.
”I started (the page) because there were more sightings than ever before,” Sierra explained. “I would say 35 to 50 percent of people in the group have (recently) seen a coyote in the neighborhood.”
“I feel like I’m doing coyote therapy.”
Sierra certainly seems to be on to something. Coyotes — particularly near the University of Puget Sound campus and along the North Slope — have people talking, and looking for answers.
Many have found their way to Sierra’s page.
“It could be just a handful of very busy coyotes. Who knows?” Sierra says. “I’m really curious.”
That’s the rub of a story like this. Is the surge in North Tacoma coyotes a thing, or does it simply feel like a thing — thanks to sightings being reported on social media?
TacomaFIRST 311 tracks reported coyote sightings and informs the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Division. Based on information provided by city spokeswoman Maria Lee, there’s been a noticeable increase in sightings over the last two years.
In 2016, nine coyote sightings were reported to 311 citywide. In 2017, that number jumped to 23.
So far this year, 42 sightings have been reported — with a disproportionate number occurring in North Tacoma, in the general vicinity of UPS.
So does that mean there are more coyotes in Tacoma?
Matthew Stevens is a wildlife biologist with the Agriculture Department and affiliated with the agency’s Western Washington district. Before being promoted to his current position, he spent the better part of a decade as the agency’s urban coyote specialist.
In short, Stevens knows a thing or two about coyotes, and particularly their interactions with humans. Asked about the possibility that North Tacoma is experiencing a noticeable increase in its coyote population, he was highly skeptical.
“We don’t have any hard data. I can’t give you percentages,” Stevens acknowledged. “What I can tell you is that from our perspective there hasn’t been any increase — meaning the number of calls we get from year to year doesn’t really change that much.”
There are coyotes in “every square block” of Western Washington, Stevens added, saying that if anything unusual is happening – a significant “if,” in his mind – it’s likely that coyotes are becoming bolder and people simply are seeing the animals more often.
That would make sense, Stevens said, because fall and early winter are times every year when coyote sightings in urban areas typically increase.
“It’s more of a seasonal thing,” Stevens said.
This is the time of year, he explained, when coyote pups born during the spring are pushed out on their own and are searching for territory to call home.
That search takes coyotes to where the food is. Oftentimes, Stevens said, urban environments — like Tacoma, or even Seattle — are ripe with it.
More than any other factor — including over development of rural land — this is what brings coyotes to the city, he said.
“It’s the food,” Stevens said, adding that everything from a preponderance of small animals to easily accessible garbage and compost bins can add to the problem.
“They’re like rats,” Stevens said. “They’re going to go where there’s food.”
While that much is certain about urban coyotes, what else we know is somewhat limited, according to Karen Povey, conservation engagement manager for Metro Parks Tacoma.
That’s one reason Metro Parks and the University of Washington Tacoma recently launched the Urban Wildlife Project, which this month placed 25 remote cameras throughout the city, starting at Point Defiance Park and stretching southeast toward Puyallup and Parkland.
If all goes as planned, the motion-activated cameras will capture photographs of mammals — like coyotes — living in urban environments. The project should allow scientists to better understand them, and allow folks like Povey to better tell their stories to the public.
The unique endeavor is in its pilot stage, Povey said, and part of a nationwide effort of participating communities.
Eventually, Povey hopes to have about 60 cameras stretching to Northwest Trek in Eatonville, allowing for the documentation and study of mammals in urban, suburban and rural areas. Photos will be captured quarterly over the next year.
Doing so, Povey said, will provide information on everything from the diversity and number of wild mammals living in this area, to what they’re doing, which areas they prefer and how they react to light.
The information also will enable Povey to “transform the story so people will celebrate and have empathy for these animals, and not be frightened by them,” she said.
“We’re looking through the lens of, ‘How can we create wildlife friendly cities?’” she said. “Everything we learn we hope will be applicable to us better understanding ways to help urban wildlife not just survive, but thrive.”
Povey acknowledged she’s seen an increase in people talking about coyotes online, and it’s one reason she’s excited about the project.
“It’s been very concerning to me in a lot of ways, because it seems like there’s a lot of misunderstanding (about coyotes),” she offered.
That’s something Stevens is quite familiar with. Part of his job entails visiting communities dealing with the animals, and he says his “big message … is how to prevent all this from happening.”
His advice centers on not feeding coyotes, either purposefully or inadvertently. This means being mindful of things like bird feeders, fruit, accessible compost piles, garbage and pet food left outdoors.
He also recommends keeping pets in at night.
“You have a cat out with a coyote,” he said, “and sooner or later that cat is not going to come back.”
Finally, what about potentially dangerous interactions with humans?
While Stevens said it’s a good idea to not leave small children unattended, his general message was blunt, and hopefully reassuring.
“You should be more concerned with being struck by lightning,” he said.