The island’s coyotes are friends, not foes

Rumor has it that coyotes are wreaking havoc on Vashon’s domestic cat population and other animals.

Editor’s note: Green Briefs is a regular series of commentaries by eco-leaders on Vashon, presented in The Beachcomber in partnership with The Whole Vashon Project.

Rumor has it that coyotes are proliferating on the island and wreaking havoc on the domestic cat population and other animals.

But according to Brooks Fahy, islander and co-founder of the national nonprofit organization Predator Defense, nothing could be further from the truth.

Fahy has been advocating for the protection of coyotes — and other predators like wolves, cougars, and bears — for over 40 years, working to inform the public about the science which shows these predators are essential, beneficial, and self-regulating.

“The notion that coyotes are causing significant damage on the island is false,” says Fahy, “and I’ve seen no proof that coyotes are taking a large number of cats.”

Coyotes are opportunistic eaters, and while they will occasionally take cats, Fahy says their primary food source is rats, mice, and other small mammals. In fact, they provide an essential service by controlling rodent populations. They also take a small percentage of fawns each year. But their diets are diverse; they also eat worms and snakes, as well as fruit, like apples and berries.

While some might disagree, Fahy also points out that domestic cats are the nonnative species here, and a known threat to the island’s bird population. A cat lover himself, Fahy supports the idea of outdoor home “catios” for those pets who long to be “out there.”

Fahy also disputes the notion that our coyote population needs to be “controlled.” Killing coyotes has been proven to have the opposite effect — it’s counter-productive.

Coyote social structures are similar to wolves: “If you take out the alpha male and female, you destroy the pack structure and younger subordinates that normally don’t breed to begin to, which increases the population,” Fahy said.

This is an evolutionary adaptation, Fahy said, which gives them the ability to survive in the face of unprecedented persecution. He says the best approach is to leave coyotes to their own natural system of self-regulation. Because they are territorial, they rarely allow another pack or individual to enter their territory, which limits their overall population on the island.

Aside from the occasional cougar and the rare bear, coyotes are the only natural large carnivores we have on our island. We need them.

“Coyotes are extremely important to our island eco-system,” says Fahy. “Rather than viewing them as pests, we need to appreciate that coyotes are a valuable asset here.”

Because coyotes prey on other organisms, they send ripples throughout the food web, regulating the effects other animals have on that ecosystem. This cause-and-effect process is called a “trophic cascade,” or the progression of direct and indirect effects predators have across lower nutritional (trophic) levels in a food chain.

One of the clearest examples of trophic cascade occurs when wolves, mountain lions, or bears prey on ungulates (elk or deer), which keeps the ungulates moving around and their populations at lower densities.

This limits the impacts that ungulates have on plant biomass — hence more trees, bushes, and grasses can grow — which then preserves or creates habitat for many other species, from insects and reptiles to beavers and birds, especially around stream or river areas. (This prevents soil erosion, too.)

The importance of this predator impact cannot be overstated, because the composition of plant species in any natural area is a critical regulating factor of the entire ecosystem’s function.

Here are a few interesting facts about coyotes.

  • They are not nocturnal but are crepuscular – being active primarily at dawn and dusk.
  • They are extremely intelligent; multiply the intelligence of a border collie by 10 to reach a coyote’s intelligence, according to Fahy.
  • They spend much of their time teaching their offspring how to survive and become more adaptable.
  • They often mate for life.
  • They can travel at speeds up to 40 mph.
  • They have excellent hearing — they can hear mice under deep snow or thick grass.
  • They have more vocalizations than any other wild mammal in North America.
  • They are altruistic — they bring food to other trapped or injured coyotes.
  • They rarely attack humans.

Most coyote problems are caused when people feed coyotes or otherwise habituate them to people. Here are some helpful tips for coexisting with coyotes:

  • Do not feed coyotes or other wild animals.
  • Keep all pets indoors from dusk to dawn, when most predation occurs.
  • Dispose of all food garbage in covered cans and secure the lid with a bungee cord.
  • Remove sources of water and pet food at night.
  • Install a 6-foot fence with an overhang to keep coyotes out.
  • Secure fencing with ground wire so coyotes cannot dig or squeeze under fences.
  • Install automatic lighting systems around the house.
  • Remove brush that may shelter coyotes.

To learn more about the science of coyotes and why we benefit by coexisting, visit the Predator Defense website.

Susan McCabe lives and writes on Vashon. She publishes her essays on Substack under the title, “Hot Flashes Cold Showers.” Subscriptions are free at