Marin Independent Journal

Coyote in Marin Headlands: Scare it away – or kill it

April 5, 2008
Mark Prada

Air horns, paint balls and rubber bullets have failed to scare a persistent coyote in the Marin Headlands that has become so brazen it thinks nothing of trotting up to a car for a handout.

Worried that the animal could injure someone, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is weighing options on what to do with the critter – keep harassing it and hope it goes away, or kill it.

“That would be a very last, last, last option,” said GGNRA spokesman Rich Weideman. “The problem is once these animals get habituated to humans, you can’t relocate them because they will come back and do the same.”

The coyote conundrum in the Headlands is really a people problem, as the animals have become habituated by individuals feeding them. The problem may unfold in other areas of the county as coyote numbers appear to be on the upswing, leading to more opportunities for people to interact with the animals.

Andrew Boyd-Goodrich, who lives along Bunker Road in the Headlands, just west of the Five-Minute Tunnel, has seen a coyote about twice a week in recent months.

“It has actually approached me,” said Boyd-Goodrich, who has children who are 10 and 13. “It obviously doesn’t see me as a threat; they see me as an invitation for food. When I see it around, I’ll warn my kids and try to get everyone inside or on the porch. Then I approach it somewhat aggressively to let it know that, ‘No, I am not a friend.'”

Residents in the neighborhood who live in old military Capehart housing have been reminded not to feed coyotes, to keep pet food indoors and to make sure garbage cans are closed tight, and officials said they have responded well. The GGNRA is buying new trash cans with tight lids for residents, putting up signs on trailheads reminding people not to feed the animals – and has asked contractors to be mindful of open food containers.

Tourists who flood the area have not exactly heeded the admonitions.
In the Headlands, signs warning people not to feed coyotes dot roads that criss-cross the bucolic area, yet people give handouts and even stop for pictures, despite the threat of a $125 citation.

“People have been feeding the coyotes right near the signs,” said Bill Merkle, GGNRA wildlife ecologist. “It’s hard to control a wild animal, so it becomes an issue of controlling human behavior.”
But that has been hard.

“You get a lot of outsiders coming here, and they want to get that picture of the wild animal and they will put food out to get it,” said Lt. Steve Hill, field services supervisor with the Marin Humane Society, who is helping patrol the area.
The feeding habituates coyotes to humans and can have deadly consequences for the animals. One was run over and killed last fall.

“They begin to associate the road with food,” Weideman said.

Marin Humane Society workers and park law enforcement personnel are employing “vexing” techniques to get two remaining coyotes to leave the area.

Air horns, paint balls shot from guns and rubber bullets intended for wildlife have appeared to work in scaring off one of the coyotes, but a second seems to be unfazed and still roams the area, even in the middle of the day, park officials said.

“Coyotes are very smart,” said Chris Powell, recreation area spokeswoman. “They see our people coming in their vehicles and they run away. They even recognize the uniforms.”
Officials will figure out over the next month what to do with the problematic coyote.

The highly adaptable coyotes – which weigh about 40 pounds and reach the size of a medium dog – generally pose little threat to humans and are easily frightened off, although attacks have been documented on adults and children. They also can kill cats and small dogs, as has occurred in San Rafael and Mill Valley in recent years.

But as people feed and befriend the wild animals, they become less afraid of humans and the chance of a bad encounter escalates.

Boyd-Goodrich, who works for the YMCA in the Headlands, recalled seeing a coyote eyeing a group of children who were eating lunch outdoors.

“The kids were not attracting it, but the coyote knew there was food there,” he said.
There are also other youth programs in the Headlands, including at the Marine Mammal Center and the Headlands Institute.

“What if a coyote bites into a sandwich being held by a small child and the child pulls the sandwich back?” Merkle said. “Public safety is an issue here.”

Capt. Cindy Machado, of the Marin Humane Society, has worked with park officials on the issue and noted her organization strives for nonlethal means to control wild animals.
“But there are occasional situations in parks with high usage that other means may have to be used and we understand that,” she said.

Coyote sightings in Marin have increased dramatically since 2000, wildlife experts said.
“I have worked here 35 years, and it is only recently that we are getting these reports,” Hill said. “It has really picked up.”

Hundreds of coyotes once roamed the area freely. But as agriculture developed in West Marin and urbanization occurred on east side of the county, numbers dropped.
Wildlife ecologist Merkle theorizes the increase may be related to how West Marin ranchers deal with coyotes. Instead of using lethal traps to snare coyotes that threaten sheep, they now use electric fences, strobes, radio devices, guard dogs and even llamas to protect herds.

In the Marin Headlands, coyote sightings became more frequent beginning last summer.
Coyote sightings have been reported in Hamilton, Terra Linda, China Camp, the Ross Valley, Mill Valley, Tam Valley, Fort Baker and Sausalito, among other places. They have even turned up in the Presidio in San Francisco, with park officials theorizing they may have crossed the Golden Gate Bridge to get there.

While seemingly omnipresent, Merkle says there are “considerably less than 100″ coyotes – which can live up to 15 years – in the county.

Wildlife experts say coyotes play an important role in the ecosystem, keeping rodents in check, preventing them from feasting on bird eggs.”They are really important ecologically,” Merkle said.

Machado agreed.

“I think something is going right with the ecology when we see them making a strong comeback,” Machado said.

Now people have to be educated, she said. There is a countywide coyote coalition that has gathered information to help people live with coyotes. The Marin County Parks and Open Space District has even sponsored a talk: “Living with Coyotes in Marin.”

“We have taken a proactive role in managing coyote issues in an urban environment,” Machado said. “Coyotes play an important role in our local ecosystem, and it is vital that we learn to live with them.”

– Never leave a food or water source outside.
– Do not attempt to approach coyotes or make friends with them.
– Make coyotes visiting your property feel unwelcome: Shout, make loud noises, spray them with a hose.
– Keep your pets safe with proper confinement, especially at dawn and after dusk.
– Walk your dog on a leash.
– Don’t let your dog approach a coyote.
– Make your yard “coyote proof.” Remove bushes against house walls, enclose decks and staircases, reduce rodent populations, contain waste and compost, and remove fallen tree fruit.
– Report sightings to the Marin Humane Society 883-4621.

Source: Marin Humane Society
Contact Mark Prado via e-mail at