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Reports of coyotes in and around Canadian cities have been numerous over the past year. Experts say the species is adaptable, and can easily find food and shelter in urban environments

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Maia Grecco/The Globe and Mail

During a drive through town in November, Aquin George thought his mind was playing tricks on him.

The Brampton resident was stopped at an intersection on Elgin Drive, a main thoroughfare of the Toronto suburb of 600,000 people, when he saw a coyote shadowing his car and then crossing the street.

“It’s the second coyote I’ve noticed in the last month, and it’s more than I have seen in all the years I’ve lived here,” he said.

Reports of coyotes in and around Canadian cities have been numerous over the past year.

The sightings have compelled some residents of West Toronto neighbourhoods to carry baseball bats when walking at night, and dog owners in Edmonton to arm their pets with spike-laden “coyote vests” when going for park walks. British Columbia officials trapped and killed several coyotes in September after an uptick in attacks on humans and pets around Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

Experts say this increase in sightings could be due in part to Canadian cities getting bigger and spilling into coyotes’ natural habitats. A 2021 study showed that 2,700 square kilometres of Canadian land that was natural or agricultural in 1984 had been developed for residential, commercial or industrial uses by 2016. The total extent of built-up metropolitan areas in Canada has nearly tripled in the past 50 years.

But that isn’t to say encroachments on coyotes’ living quarters have cramped their style.

“Coyotes are very smart animals, and have a wide range of adaptability for city life,” said Sam Knight, the national conservation science manager for the Nature Conservancy of Canada. She said that coyotes have a history of adapting to human presence. Originally thought by British settlers to be prairie animals, they made their homes inside new agricultural colonies and stuck around for food and shelter. Now, they are thriving in urban environments for similar reasons.

“They eat a lot of food we have in the city, like rodents, carrion, fruits and vegetables,” Ms. Knight said. “There tends to be more shelter in cities, too … they like the nooks and crannies for building their dens, like decks and culverts.”

As Canadian cities become denser (the number of people living in them increased by 3.5 million between 2009 and 2019) they are also becoming better coyote habitats, with more places for the animals to hide out and more things for them to eat.

“It has come to a point where the coyote survival rate is actually twice as good in the city than in the country, where they are hunted and trapped,” said Stanley Gehrt, a professor at Ohio State University and the principal investigator of the Urban Coyote Research Project in Chicago, an initiative created to build an understanding of how coyotes live in metropolitan areas and interact with humans and other wildlife.

When he was just starting as a research biologist in the 1990s, Dr. Gehrt received a one-year grant to investigate why coyote sightings were increasing around Chicago. Immediately, he realized there were far more of them living in and around the city than he and his research team had guessed.

“We thought there were parts of Chicago, like downtown, that would be impossible for coyotes to colonize. It eventually got to the point where the only places in Chicago where you don’t have coyote territories are airports,” he said. (Coyotes may be fearful of planes, he said, and in any case flat fields and runways give them nowhere to hide.)

“That’s true for most cities. There are more of them than you could ever imagine.”

Their proliferation in urban areas can pose obvious problems: They are highly territorial and can be hostile toward pets. Attacks on humans are rare, but they do happen. While several Canadian cities have taken action to remove violent coyotes, some jurisdictions have developed more peaceful tactics.

Montreal city officials published a booklet of non-violent attack prevention techniques in 2018, after a rapid increase in sightings and coyote attacks. Calgary gave similar advice to residents earlier this year after putting down two coyotes that had attacked humans in the city’s northwest communities.

Ms. Knight and Dr. Gehrt said that, as long as cities continue to grow in size and density, we will have to live with coyotes, because lethal control has not been shown to work.

One possible reason for the failure of lethal measures is that coyotes have an instinctual way of bouncing back. In a pack, it’s common for only the lead (or alpha) coyote to breed. When the alpha is killed, the group disperses and more of its members tend to reproduce. Studies have shown coyote populations that face external pressures such as trapping and hunting often produce larger litters of young to compensate.

Dr. Gehrt thinks the opposite is now happening in cities: Coyotes are having smaller litters and delaying reproduction so as not to overcrowd their new urban territories. Too many coyotes in one place can lead to squabbles over land and, eventually, dispersion.

That natural population control should eventually help to keep the number of city sightings down. But human intervention could interrupt the process and cause coyote populations to increase. Failed government action isn’t the only thing at fault: People have been spending more time outside after rounds of lockdowns and, at times, feeding coyotes (which is strongly discouraged, and illegal in some Canadian cities).

Dr. Gehrt said he does not believe we will start seeing far more coyotes in our yards in years to come. But, he added, we should no longer be startled by the odd encounter.

“Once they got their footprint in here – and they have their footprint in here – life is good for coyotes in the city,” he said.

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