SOMEWHERE IN CENTRAL MASS. — The hunter’s boots crunched through the snow as he walked slowly across the farm, headed toward a pile of meat in the far corner.
He’d been replenishing the bait for months now, using the pungent meat from beavers he trapped, and the ruse has been working. It’s coyote mating season, and a remote camera aimed at the pile has been hot with visitors.
At the opposite corner of the farm, a second hunter headed toward another mound of bait, armed like his friend with a rifle and an electronic caller — a portable speaker programmed with sounds to lure in the coyotes. The plan was to alternate calls, with one mimicking the sound of an injured rabbit while the other played the howl of an adult male, hoping to entice the coyotes into the clearing with the prospect of food, or a fight.
The first hunter arrived at his ground blind, a tangle of branches to hide behind, about 100 yards downwind from the bait pile. He rested his rifle against a tree, set a cushion down on the snow for just a hint of warmth, and was preparing to settle in for a sunset hunt when he suddenly sprang for his gun.
A coyote was already feeding at the pile, its coat blended in with the bloody snow around the bait. But before the hunter could raise the scope to his eye, the coyote took off, and the hunter kicked himself.
But not for long. There will be more coyotes. This is Massachusetts after all.
For the past decade or so, coyotes have reached what is essentially a saturation point, according to state experts. Outside of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, they are in every single city and town in the state, and at close to peak density. The landscape simply can’t support anymore, experts say; all territories are filled.
With that explosion have come repeated calls from alarmed suburbanites, especially pet owners: Someone needs to do something about this!
But wildlife management specialists say there’s no easy solution. Lethal traps, snares, and non-lethal foothold traps were banned by 54 percent of voters in a 1996 ballot question, and live box traps — the only type still legal — are considered so ineffective that the ban eliminated trapping as a feasible option for coyote control. Between 2014 and 2020, only three coyotes were reported trapped in the state.
But even those who vehemently opposed the ban, including all the major hunting organizations, say allowing those options now would make little difference, and many experts believe the traps would have been ineffective at stopping the coyote explosion anyway. Either way, the consensus is that coyotes, known for their extraordinary adaptive biology, have become so prevalent they would rebound from any attempts to cull their numbers.
“This number of coyotes is what we are going to have indefinitely,” said Dave Wattles, the coyote expert at MassWildlife. “People need to get used to that idea.”
There are only two tools to deal with them, Wattles said. Removing their source of food and harassing them back into the woods, away from people and out of backyards, where they eat bird seed and compost and garbage and pets.
“This is about returning them to their natural state, where they have a healthy fear of humans,” said Joe Afonso, chairman of the Mass Conservation Alliance, an umbrella organization for many state sporting clubs and organizations. “You can see that they’ve lost this, especially inside I-495, where legal hunting opportunities are extremely limited because of our current setback laws. And now we have all these reports of coyotes going after dogs, coyotes going after 2-year-olds. We need to get that fear back.”
The first attack of a coyote on a human in Massachusetts occurred in 1998, two years after the trapping ban went into effect. Since then there have been at least 24, including three highly publicized attacks on small children last summer.
Their growing prevalence — and boldness — in residential areas has raised widespread concern, and conservation groups are taking action.
For the first time ever, the Conservation Alliance is paying for lobbyists, hoping to convince lawmakers to expand archery hunting. Currently, hunters cannot shoot a gun or a bow within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling. A proposal included in the 2023 budget recently released by Governor Charlie Baker, would halve that to 250 feet, bringing the setback in line with neighboring states.
Baker’s budget also includes a proposal to allow hunting on Sundays during archery deer season, which runs through October and November, doubling the number of days most hunters can get out into the woods. This overlaps with coyote hunting season, which runs from mid-October to early March, and the Conservation Alliance argues it is a way to drive back the coyotes, as only about 10 percent of hunters say they go out after coyotes; the majority of those who take a shot at them are deer hunters waiting in tree stands when coyotes happen to walk by.
In the past, Sunday hunting has proven a tough sell. Each time the idea comes up, it is unpopular in a state where the public opinion of hunting sits on a precarious edge, especially with “furbearer” animals like coyotes, where the harvest is not meat, but pelt.
In a 2019 national survey conducted for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, 80 percent of Americans approved of “legal hunting,” but that support is lowest in the Northeast, at 72 percent. That number rises when the hunting is for food, but plunges dramatically in every category associated with coyote hunting: hunting predators, trapping for fur, and using high-tech equipment, such as electronic calls and $5,000 thermal night-vision scopes that allow for coyote hunting at night (in Massachusetts, with the proper equipment, coyotes can legally be hunted until midnight).
The fact that coyotes are rarely eaten can make hunting them appear like killing for killing’s sake, which many oppose. Most of the state’s 55,000 active hunters have no interest in it. Each year only 600 coyotes are killed, out of a population estimated between 10,000 and 12,000.
Coyotes’ similarity to dogs also makes many people uncomfortable. After photos from coyote hunting contests were posted online a few years ago, showing dead canines piled in the back of pickups, the uproar led the state to enact a wanton waste law, meaning that hunted animals must be utilized in some way after they are killed.
For the hunter at the farm, who asked to remain anonymous because of general hostility toward coyote hunters, the resource is the fur, which he has tanned for himself or sells raw to the fur market for $20 per hide. In his shed he had five recently skinned coyotes on the ground, with their hides drying on a wall. Hanging from the rafters were dozens of the traps he used before the 1996 ban.
“If we had more tools, it wouldn’t happen overnight, but we’d be a helluva lot better off than we are right now,” he said. “I can hunt for two hours a day but a trap can hunt for 24.”
But he knows that the lethal traps are not coming back. The issue is too emotional. Instead, he’s hoping for some smaller steps, like the setback decrease and some recognition from non-hunters that the coyote problem isn’t going away by itself.
“I have no doubt that if we took away their food source, most of our coyote problems would go away. But that means you can’t have a cat. And you can’t have a dog. Or you put more tools into the hands of people like me who want to do it for free.”