Study: Coyotes impacting domestic cats in rural settings

In the eyes of the public, coyotes are mostly seen a nuisance species wrecking havoc to wildlife, livestock and domestic animals everywhere it invades.

A newly published paper in the Oxford University Journal of Mammology reported a way in which coyotes are making a positive contribution to the environment – keeping domestic cats away from wildlife.

Dr. Bill McShea, a research ecologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal and one of the paper’s nine authors, said researchers noticed a correlation between domestic cats and coyotes in public forested areas.

“Most parks either had cats or coyotes, but rarely did you have both,” McShea said, adding that the only areas containing both were urban parks that had a corridor to rural areas.

McShea said, “When you move into a more rural setting where the coyotes come to dominate the landscape, they pretty much remove cats from the equation.”

He said this observation was made as a result of developing a new system of motion-sensor “camera traps” to document the movement of mammals.

McShea noted that they were initially looking at a question of “Can we create a pipeline that takes all of this rich camera data from the field into a data repository where it can be worked with?”

Basically, McShea said, it’s using big data in the world of ecology.

“We built it with the idea that we had some questions we wanted to look, but we knew once you start collecting data at that scale, some interesting things would pop out at you.”

In this case, researchers noticed a strong correlation across each of the six states monitored.

To McShea, keeping cats away from local wildlife would be a major benefit to the local environment. He noted that domestic cats are a well-documented predator for certain species.

“There’s quite a few papers out there that show that cats are significant, effective and efficient predators on birds, primarily, but also small mammals,” McShea said.

“I don’t know what the coyotes are doing to the cats,” McShea added. “It could be the cats can sense those coyotes and they stay away from those areas where they encounter coyote smells.”

While coyotes are typically referred to as an invasive species, to McShea and other ecologists and biologists, the coyotes are already here in Virginia.

“These are exciting times,” McShea said. “Things are changing, coyotes are every place that they didn’t used to be.”

He added that wildlife managers will have to look at a question of: “Is the presence of coyotes preventing them from maintaining other species that are important or are they just a part of the soup?”

The project was a massive undertaking between Smithsonian researchers, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University.

In addition, more than 480 local volunteers, undergraduates and middle school students helped the researchers collect  photographic data as citizen scientists.

“The volunteers were the least hard part of this whole project,” McShea said, noting that people wanted to volunteer for and participate in it.

“People want to be involved with things. They just don’t want to look at it on the Web, they want to get in there and do something,” he said.

Together, this army of scientists documented coyotes and cats using at least 300 motion-censor cameras placed in public forests such as George Washington National Forest and Shenandoah National Park.

Moving forward, McShea said he is looking to apply the technology from eMammal “into more of a national program” to look at species across vast ranges of states and territories.

“You could look at a species across its boundaries and get a better sense of what’s impacting that animal,” McShea said.

McShea said researchers will also be looking at the impact of recreation – hunting, hiking or walking — of public forests on mammals outside of bears or deer.

McShea said, “How does all of that recreational use impact the animals that are not necessarily the focus of what people are in there for?”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com