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Once scarce, coyotes are being spotted all over Vashon

Coyotes are is about the size of a collie but usually much thinner. - Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife
Coyotes are is about the size of a collie but usually much thinner.
— image credit: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife

Living on the west side of Vashon near Camp Sealth, Bella Ormseth has become accustomed to chasing raccoons away from her home, seeing deer saunter through her property and even hearing seals bark in the distance. But when her neighbors began to say there were coyotes in the area, Ormseth didn’t believe them.

“The reports were always a little vague. I said, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’” she recalled.

Ormseth became a believer just a few weeks ago when, during breakfast one morning, her husband called her to the window to see two coyotes trotting across their lawn.

“There’s no mistaking it for any kind of dog,” Ormseth said.

The two snapped a photo of the second coyote as it disappeared into the woods and sent it to friend and ecologist Bianca Perla, who wasn’t at all surprised to see the shot.

Perla and other local experts say the Ormseths’ sighting is one of a growing number of coyote reports that may signal a growth in the animal’s population on Vashon.

“I would guess they’re making a comeback,” Perla said.

Perla grew up on the Vashon but had not heard of coyotes on the Island until after she moved back with her family in 2003. Perla, who chairs the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, spotted a coyote herself last summer and has heard them howling a few times near her west-side home.

“I really think there are more because of hearing the howls,” she said. “I think there were pups this spring.”

Vashon was once heavily logged to make room for farms and to feed the region’s appetite for timber. But in the last few decades, it has again become a more forested Island — and thus a more habitable place for coyotes, Perla said. Coyotes are strong swimmers. Those on Vashon, she said, have likely swum to the Island from the fast-growing Kitsap Peninsula.

“There were a lot more fields (on Vashon) when I was a kid, and it has grown back in,” she said. “I think there are a lot more places for them to hide.”

T Yamamoto, director of Wolftown, said she too has heard more reports of coyotes in the past few years, though she doesn’t know if it means there are more coyotes or that people are simply noticing them more.

Yamamoto, who has lived on Vashon for more than 20 years, first became aware of coyotes on the Island in 2006, when one was hit by a car near St. John Vianney Catholic Church. She didn’t hear of any sightings in 2007. But each year since, Yamamoto said, she has gotten about one more coyote report than the year before, and in 2011 she got word of four or five sightings. She has also heard them howling a few times near Wolftown, a wildlife rehabilitation organization near Camp Sealth, but said it’s impossible to know how many there are.

“My guess is there are not very many,” she said. “The same people are probably seeing the same ones. But that’s just a guess.”

Coyotes have mostly been spotted or heard on the west side and south end of Vashon, but the elusive animals are known to travel widely, and they seem to have made it all over Vashon.

JoAnne Hennessey, who had heard of coyote sightings near Bank Road, looked out the window of her north-end home one morning in May to see a coyote chasing her cat across the yard.

“I haven’t seen the cat run that fast in a long time,” she said with a laugh.

Unsure if her eyes had fooled her, Hennessey did a quick Google search to confirm it was in fact a coyote.

“That was definitely what I saw, hands down,” she said.

A couple of months later, one coyote made it nearly to the north-end ferry dock. Heidi Skrzypek, who lives on 103rd Avenue, otherwise known as Ferry Hill, was woken early one July morning by her chickens making a racket. She discovered a coyote sniffing around their coop.

“I was like, ‘Holy smokes. Is that what I think it is?’” Skrzypek recalled.

Like Hennessey, Skrzypek also did an online search to confirm what she’d seen. And though she was surprised to see a coyote on the more populated north end of the Island, she said she was simply glad her chickens were safe inside their coop.

“I’ve lost chickens to dogs and raccoons before,” she said.

Yamamoto, who keeps a large herd of sheep herself, said she hasn’t heard of coyotes killing livestock or pets on Vashon.

“I’ve never lost a sheep to anything except dogs,” she said.

Perla agreed, saying that so far Vashon’s coyote population seems to be shy, only coming out of the forest during the night or early morning and usually not approaching homes.

“They’ll shy away from places where they don’t feel welcome,” she said.

To ensure coyotes stay clear of pets and livestock, Perla added, Islanders should scare them away with loud noises whenever possible and never give them food or water.

“I think what’s going to make or break whether the coyotes successfully coexist with us is our attitude toward them and our education, our knowledge of how to be good neighbors with them,” she said.

Brian Kertson, King County’s biologist for the Vashon area, said he wasn’t surprised to hear about coyotes on Vashon, as they seem to be moving into urban areas in larger numbers and are known to live on other islands in Puget Sound.

“Coyotes are remarkably adaptable,” he said. “Any place they can get to they seem to set up shop and do very well for themselves.”

The county isn’t worried about coyotes living near people, Kertson said, but it recommends that pet owners keep small animals inside at night and never leave pet food outside, as coyotes that have become less fearful have been known to kill pets.

“I don’t think (Islanders) should be worried,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to avoid conflict with coyotes.”

Even livestock, Kertson said, can usually be protected by boarding animals inside at night or surrounding them with a tall fence anchored deep in the ground.

“These things can be somewhat costly, but at the same time if you’re concerned about your livestock, these are things you should be thinking about,” Kertson said.

Perla and Yamamoto believe that the presence of coyotes could ultimately benefit the Island, as Vashon has overabundant populations of rodents, raccoons and deer. Coyotes mainly feed on small rodents but will also kill deer and raccoons that are young or sick.

“In order for things to be balanced on the Island, it’s better to have a few predators,” Yamamoto said.

She added that when animals’ populations are able to flourish without predators, even the sick animals have a better chance of surviving and reproducing. Rats, mice and raccoons on Vashon are believed to carry leptospirosis and tapeworm, which can be passed on to pets.

“When you have a predator that can eat them, you help reduce them,” Yamamoto said.

And though Bella Ormseth has kept her cats inside at night since spotting the coyotes a few weeks ago and is now on alert when walking in the forest in the morning, she says it’s a small price to pay for seeing a healthier ecosystem on Vashon.

“They were beautiful to look at, and if they help with the rodent population that’s just fine,” she said.

 

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