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4 Myths About SF Coyotes, Debunked

Written by Julie ZigorisVideo by Mike KubaPublished Nov. 12, 2022 • 9:00am

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It seems like there are coyote sightings everywhere these days: from the top of Bernal Heights to the depths of the SF Botanical Gardens at Golden Gate Park and even in angry NextDoor posts. 

Yet, is there truly a coyote boom in San Francisco? 

In a word: No. But it remains one of many misconceptions about the urban coyote population in San Francisco.

We’ve cataloged this and other prevalent coyote myths below:

Myth #1: Population Explosion  

More time spent outside brought on by the pandemic led to more sightings of coyotes that were shared on NextDoor and other social media sites. 

It amplified a sense that coyotes were everywhere, said Janet Kessler, a San Francisco coyote blogger and observer of 15 years. 

But the truth is we already reached peak coyote some time ago—and the population can’t expand more, local ecologist Jonathan Young said.

“After about roughly 20 years of coyote establishment in the city, San Francisco is saturated with long-term residents,” said Young, Presidio Trust wildlife ecologist. “We’re at a peak and we’ve probably been at that peak for a while now in terms of population growth.” 

According to Peter Brastow, senior biodiversity specialist in the Environment Department of San Francisco, the city is 95% developed, which doesn’t leave much space for canines to roam. 

“Coyotes need to have core areas of land where they can hide away, which is obviously limited in their tiny little 7-by-7-mile city,” said Young. 

There are select locations that have breeding pairs—such as Glen Canyon, Bernal Heights, McLaren Park, the Presidio and one on either end of Golden Gate Park—but those numbers won’t get bigger, as the coyotes won’t let other nonfamily members into their territory, given their social behaviors. 

The other limiting factor on the coyote population is their biggest predator: cars. “It’s by far the No. 1 cause of death in San Francisco every year,” Young said. 

According to Kessler, at least 24 coyotes were picked up last year alone that were killed by cars—and this doesn’t account for coyotes that survive a car impact but die of their injuries later. 

A coyote plays with a plastic cup in San Francisco. | Courtesy of Janet Kessler/coyoteyipps.com

Myth #2: Coyotes Are on a Dog-Killing Rampage 

Any lost pet is tragic—and coyotes have certainly killed dogs in San Francisco. Yet, it’s not the surge some might imagine. “It’s a small number,” said Sally Stephens, chair of the advocacy group SFDOG. “And it’s not all the time.”  

Simple practices will help keep pets safe. Dogs should remain on leash during pupping season—April through September—near known coyote habitats, when parents get especially protective of their young. And if a dog doesn’t respond to voice control, it should be leashed at all times. 

People walking dogs also can misinterpret coyote behavior. “Coyotes will often follow someone who’s walking with a dog, and what they’re doing is making sure you’re leaving the area,” Stephens said. “They’re not in any way being aggressive. They’re not going to attack.” 

The biggest threat to dogs comes when humans hand-feed coyotes. This can end up drawing coyotes closer to dogs because of the humans who walk them, and it helps them to associate people with a food source. But coyotes just want to be left alone, Kessler said. 

“There’s ongoing tension with dog walkers,” Brastow said of the canine-versus-coyote situation. “But we’ve made a commitment as a city to live with wildlife, including coyotes.”

Two coyotes play with each other. | Courtesy of Janet Kessler/coyoteyipps.com

Myth #3: They Only Harm, Not Help

While coyotes are most often framed in terms of danger, they play an important role in the interconnected web of wildlife in the city—and their reappearance in the city 20 years ago has had distinct benefits. 

Though feral cats used to be a major threat to birds, like the California quail—San Francisco’s official bird, which is extinct from the very city it’s an emblem of—coyotes have changed the landscape. 

“San Francisco’s feral cat population is better controlled in San Francisco, and that is entirely due to our coyote population,” said Whitney Grover, interim deputy director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. “As coyotes have increased in the city, our feral cat populations have decreased, which is really great.”

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The coyote population has helped to rebalance the food chain and expand the delicate web of biodiversity. “Everything impacts them, and they impact everything,” Kessler said. 

While Grover doesn’t discourage people from having cats as pets, she underscores the importance of keeping them indoors, since they can kill birds, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals—and also be killed by coyotes themselves. 

“Feral cats are ‘introduced invasive’ predators,” Grovers said. “And when you introduce a new predator into any ecosystem, you’re gonna have major impacts and major imbalances.”

Coyote crosses road in front of car in San Francisco. | Courtesy of Janet Kessler/coyoteyipps.com

Myth #4: You Can Move ‘Em Out

San Francisco Animal Care & Control receives many requests about removing and relocating coyotes—but this would be illegal under California State Law, which specifically prohibits the relocation of trapped wildlife. 

Provocative social media posts such as marathon runner Dean Karnazes’ bloodied face on Instagram—what was later believed to be from a fall and not a coyote directly—has people amped up on fear, ready to take matters into their own hands.

According to Young, the canines have been threatened with everything from poisoned meat to intentionally swerving cars to even a crossbow. 

“People have made a decision about coyotes, and it’s not going to change,” Kessler said. “It’s almost a religious feeling.” Part of the reason Kessler maintains her blog, she explains, is to help people “overcome their fear and hate” for the animals. 

Yet, despite how people might feel—wanting to remove or eradicate them—the coyotes aren’t going anywhere. “The reality is that we have to find some way to coexist. They’re not going away,” Stephens said.

It’s not only impossible from a legal perspective to eradicate coyotes but also from an ecological one. Now that the practice of shooting coyotes has ended, the animals will find their ways across bridges and back into the city. 

“You can’t get rid of that ecology and the biology of the animal, so you can’t get rid of them,” Young said. 

English

Julie Zigoris can be reached at [email protected]


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