Smithsonian facility on watch for coyotes that killed gazelle

FRONT ROYAL – The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is taking steps to protect its animals after coyotes killed an endangered gazelle.

Records show this is the first attack by a coyote on another animal at the Warren County facility in its history, Pamela Baker-Masson, associate director of communications for the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, stated in an email on Thursday.

The facility isn’t exactly “coyote proof,” said Will Pitt, the institute’s deputy director. Coyotes can and do roam freely in and out of the property. But, until now, coyotes haven’t attacked the institute’s collection animals.

The slain animal, classified as either an addra or a dama gazelle, died on Oct. 10, according to information from Baker-Masson. Workers at the institute in Warren County saw three coyotes at the site of the gazelle’s killing, Pitt said Thursday. DNA evidence showed coyotes killed the animal, and a necropsy of the gazelle revealed the gazelle died from the attack, he noted.

Now facility workers are keeping their eyes out for the coyotes that attacked the gazelle. They’ve also taken steps to try to prevent another attack, Pitt said.

“We’ve done multiple other things in the meantime, moving collection animals to protect them and then reinforcing fencing and gates and doing other things,” Pitt said. “And the problem is we’ve had reoccurring attempts to collect so it’s not something that has stopped.

“Part of it is until they learn it’s a food resource they’re not necessarily going to be attempting, you know, to go in to something as difficult if they have food elsewhere,” Pitt added. “It’s one of those things that you can have an individual animal change its behavior that’s causing issues and we’re trying to prevent that from happening in the future.”

Not all coyotes that roam onto the property go after animals in the facility’s collection, Pitt said, adding that bears on the facility also don’t try to enter the animal pens.

“So we’re not talking about removal of coyotes on the property or bears or anything like that,” Pitt said. “We’re just really targeting the ones that learned to do this and keep attempting to do this.”

The intent is to eliminate, not to relocate, the coyotes they suspect killed the gazelle, Baker-Masson said in another email. Pitt called it an effort to remove the coyotes that attempted to gain access to the collection.

Said Pitt, “We’re not trying to reduce coyote populations or wildlife populations.”

After the incident, the most vulnerable species were moved to indoor or to smaller, internal yards that have several layers of fence protection from surrounding open space, Baker-Masson states in the email. Workers reduced the risk of future predation events by reinforcing barriers and by inspecting fences more often, she goes on to say.

Dig barriers were placed around containment areas to protect certain collection species from digging out and to keep wild animals from digging in. Electric fences surround some enclosures to prevent raccoons and feral cats from harassing avian species. Animal program workers spend 40-50 percent of their time checking, maintaining and addressing breaches in the containment areas.

Coyote populations were not well established in Virginia when the institute was built. As coyote populations increase, all future facilities will require more protection from coyotes in their design, Baker-Masson noted.

The county has seen coyote populations increase over the years. The county also offers a bounty to people who kill coyotes.

Institute officials believe most coyotes on the property don’t threaten the collection animals because they focus on other natural resources, Baker-Masson states. The coyotes that fed on the gazelle likely will continue to try to access the collection animals. The institute plans to selectively eliminate individual coyotes that established territories close to the gazelle kill site and that try to access the collection.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com