Coyotes of Hilton Head Island are here to stay

If you believe the tales, coyotes are everywhere on Hilton Head Island. Until five years, it was mostly urban legend and many cases of mistaken identity. But a funny thing happened among all the storytelling. Coyotes literally made their way down U.S. 278 and on to the island. While we are far from an outbreak situation, experts caution that the migratory predator is here to stay, like it or not.

“They’re an incredibly adaptable animal, they adjust their feeding habits to the region and that makes them the type of animal that stays put once they’re there,” said South Carolina Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Jay Butfiloski. “They take advantage of lazy human habits. Pet food left outside, discarded food scraps, garbage. The more this stuff is left uncovered, the more coyotes will be around.”

The first known sighting of coyotes in the state happened upstate in the 1970s and have now spread to every county. Contrary to rumors, the DNR did not introduce coyotes into the state to help control the deer population. They migrated here from Georgia and the population grew when houndsmen illegally imported some. The first reports of coyotes on Hilton Head started around 2009 in Sea Pines.

Residents reported cats disappearing and coyote scat appearing in their yards. Security officials recall one resident reporting a lot of howling well after midnight. When security arrived, they saw an alligator staring down a coyote it had cornered. Soon after, the alligator retreated to a lagoon and the coyote stopped howling.

“That’s one thing folks need to remember. This is not an animal that loves interaction,” Butfiloski said. “They’re not looking to attack us. There has actually only been two known cases of coyotes killing humans in the U.S. They’re mostly a very shy animal.”

That said, coyotes can kill cats and smaller dogs. They’re not preying on the house pets, but if confronted, they will attack. Mostly, they’re looking for food. It’s why they’ve outlasted the wolves in these parts. Grey and red wolves used to be more prevalent but they are just not as adaptable and thusly, their populations waned. The coyotes took advantage of the vacancy.

“They will take advantage of our self-inflicted wounds,” Butfiloski said. “Leave your dog food outside after dusk, you’re inviting trouble. Leave your trash outside and not canned, get ready to see a coyote.”

This is exactly the repeated stories we heard from security officials and residents at Wexford Plantation, Shipyard Plantation and Palmetto Dunes. All cases involved food one way or another, 14 in all – 12 of them involving garbage broken into and two involving dogs and cats that engaged the coyotes. While there is plenty of fear from residents, security officials seemed more amused than anything. They have informed their residents well, using DNR guidelines telling us to be aggressive yet still if you ever run into one. Let the coyote know we’re not pushovers, but do not run.

“That triggers a response,” Butfiloski said. “If we’re running, that says to the coyote that we’re prey.”

The early 2009 Sea Pines reports were fairly innocent. While residents were scared, T-shirts that said “Save the Sea Pines Coyotes” started popping up all around the island – the product of The Salty Dog just as were the “Save the Sea Pines Deer” and the “Save The Forest Beach Chickens” T-shirts and bumper stickers. This isn’t the first odd wild animal on the island. The Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn has documented cases of bears, bobcats and diamondback rattlesnakes through the years. They all came and went. The coyote, on the other hand, is very likely here to stay.

“They latch on to an area and they rarely let go,” Butfiloski said. “We’re seeing it the migration all over the state.” Indeed, places like Mt. Pleasant, Sullivan’s Island and Myrtle Beach have had similar reportings and population growths. According to Sea Pines wildlife officer Lt. Todd McNeill, the sightings have decreased where it all began. Folks are still seeing the occasional coyote but the frequency of the reports have gone down.

“Guys on the midnight shift, they typically saw them from 2010 to 2013, but we’ve had no issues with pets or the deer population,” McNeill said.

That’s not to say the coyotes aren’t a problem. McNeill said there’s actually a new problem arising that is becoming a true issue.

“We have seen that the coyotes are getting more and more brazen about digging up and eating sea turtle nests,” he said. “We’ve traced the tracks and have it narrowed down to the coyote. So we’re taking action.”

McNeill said that wildlife biologist David Henderson has been in contact with town officials about setting up tracking cameras to get real proof before they start deterrent actions. With nesting season coming up, McNeill said that Sea Pines officials will get more aggressive in keeping the coyotes away this year. Butfiloski said that’s the right approach – know we’re not going to eradicate them, but work toward controlling the problem.

“We as a country have been thinking we can eradicate this animal since the early 1900s. It’s just not going to happen,” he said. “Focusing on getting rid of them is a lonely and costly road. The more we realize they’re here to stay and just focus on coexisting with them and minimizing them as a problem, the better off we’re all going to be.”