GLOUCESTER — Coyotes trot down sidewalks and ramble across golf courses. They stalk prey in backyards and in bordering woodlands. At night, their eerie howls rattle residents.
Though these predators were once considered a rarity in Gloucester, sightings have become regular in recent years, leaving many locals worried about their own safety and that of their pets.
"I'm creeped out at night walking around here," said Tom Janis, a resident of East Gloucester for 16 years, who now carries a heavy flashlight on nocturnal walks in case he and his dog encounter an aggressive coyote. "Their numbers have gone up exponentially."
The belief in a coyote population boom has raised so much concern among residents that more than 250 people crowded into an informational meeting earlier this month to ask questions and propose solutions to the perceived problem.
"It speaks volumes that in the middle of winter, we had that many people come out," said Steven LeBlanc Jr., a Gloucester city councilor and one of the event's organizers.
Wildlife experts say there is little evidence of a surge in coyote numbers.
The predators started moving into Western Massachusetts in the 1930s, said Pat Huckery, northeast district supervisor for the state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife. When the state's cougar and wolf populations dwindled, coyotes filled in the large-predator niche.
By the 1990s, coyotes had saturated the state, except for Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, she said. Today, there are an estimated 10,000 statewide.
In a suburban area like Gloucester, a family of five to 11 coyotes needs a range of about 6 square miles, Huckery said. There just isn't room in the ecosystem for sudden growth in the numbers once an area has been fully populated, she said.
"We're not even sure we have a burgeoning population," Huckery said.
People may feel like they are seeing more coyotes, she said, because they are seeing the same few animals multiple times as they ramble within their territory.
Many residents, however, are convinced the numbers are growing. LeBlanc has seen coyotes wandering in densely populated downtown Gloucester. Pat Morss, who has lived in East Gloucester since 1972, had a pack of cubs living in his backyard last year. Though Morss has never felt menaced by a coyote, he does wonder what would happen if he stumbled upon cubs with a protective mother, he said.
Statistically, there is little reason to feel threatened by coyotes, Huckery said. Statewide, there have only been a few incidents of the animals acting aggressively toward humans.
"Most are minding their own business and behaving well," she said. "There are so few cases where a coyote actually harms a person."
In 2015, Gloucester police received 40 calls about coyote sightings, Chief Leonard Campanello said. Some callers reported feeling apprehensive about the predators' presence, but none reported any attacks, he said.
For resident Sam Holmes, the discomfort residents feel is a problem in itself.
"You want to feel safe when you're walking down the street," he said. "You don't want to have to worry about whether you're being stalked by coyotes or not."
Holmes thinks part of the solution could be an increase in coyote hunting. He himself hunts the animals and tans their hides, which he then gives away. In Massachusetts, coyote hunting season runs from October to March, and there are no limits on the number of animals that can be killed.
Huckery, however, said that a better solution is to manage coyotes' access to food sources.
Coyotes are incredibly adaptable animals, she said, able to feed on everything from blackberries and wild rabbits to household pets and trash. To reduce the chance of an unpleasant encounter, people need to give the predators less access to food. That means removing bird feeders that can attract small mammals on which coyote prey. Trash bags should not be left on the curb until the morning they are set to be collected, Huckery said, and compost should be kept in sealed containers.
"The numbers are going to correspond to the amount of food people make available to them," she said.
LeBlanc, the city councilor, wants to create a plan for dealing with future growth in the coyote population. He hopes the city can collaborate with state agencies and the environmental police to prepare for a possible need to control numbers.
LeBlanc supports calls for residents to remove bird feeders and be careful with their trash, he said, but doubts these steps will be enough to prevent the coyote population from growing.
"Living with them right now is the best bet," he said. "But eventually, I think, there will have to be some kind of population control."
What the howling is all about
• Coyotes are the size of a medium-size dog. Females typically weigh 33 to 40 lbs., males 34 to 47 lbs.
• Because they adapt so well to their surroundings, coyotes can be found near almost all residents of Massachusetts.
• Their primary foods include fruit, berries, small rodents, rabbits, birds, snakes, frogs, and insects. They also will eat garbage and pet food, and they prey on cats and dogs, given the chance.
• Coyotes are useful in reducing pests, especially rodents.
• A family group — or pack — consists of parents, pups, and sometimes the previous year's pups.
• Howling is the way coyotes communicate with one another. They are usually either calling their own family members or warning nonfamily members to stay out of their territory. Parents may scatter and howl as a distraction if they sense a threat to their den, where the pups are hidden.
SOURCE: Mass. Division of Fisheries & Wildlife
Sarah Shemkus can be reached at email@example.com.