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In San Francisco, coyotes are your wildest neighbors

This story aired most recently in our 3/28/23 episode of Crosscurrents.

San Francisco is a biodiversity hotspot. Its vast parks are home to more than 50 types of mammals. Now, the city named after the patron saint of animals is home to an apex predator, the coyote. The canines can be heard in McLaren Park, Golden Gate Park, and the Presidio.

Hearing coyotes in San Francisco does seem sort of strange – more like Photoshop trickery or a blip in the ecology than a daily occurrence. But they were here first. The indigenous people of San Francisco, the Ohlone, say the Coyote helped create the world. They thrived in the Western U.S. until the late 1800s, when pioneers saw them as a threat to livestock. Then, after decades of being poisoned and trapped, coyotes were virtually wiped out. In fact, the last recorded history of one in San Francisco was back in 1925. That is, until they made their triumphant return around 2001.

Damien Raffa of the Presidio Trust says capturing and testing some coyotes revealed that the coyotes had come from the North and that the Golden Gate bridge was their corridor. And he says San Francisco has habitats that are practically made for them.

“The Presidio was large enough,” he says. “It had enough habitat for two pairs of coyotes. So about 2.5 square miles, that’s about 1 square mile per pair, but we’ve gotten sightings throughout the park. During breeding season coyotes typically select more densely vegetated areas away from other canines, which is to say dogs, which are ubiquitous in the Presidio.”

And elsewhere in San Francisco.

In 2007, two coyotes attacked a dog in Golden Gate Park. The dog’s owner demanded that something be done, so federal authorities came in to shoot the coyotes.

Jonathan Young, a wildlife ecologist with the Presidio Trust, says, “What turns out happened, the dog was off leash, and they were in a denning area. The [coyote] parents came out to protect their den, and they were killed by management. The pups didn’t have parents so they starved. So that kind of sparked a controversy.”

The incident inspired San Francisco’s Animal Care and Control to work on a coexistence strategy. They started putting up signs warning people of den sites, advising them not to feed coyotes, and to keep dogs safely on a leash. But that’s about it. It’s illegal to remove coyotes in San Francisco under California State Law, so they have no plans to change the status quo. They also don’t know how many coyotes there are in the city now.

That’s not good enough for Young. He has a new strategy for understanding the urban coyotes. He’s setting up camera traps to find out their newest den sites and where coyote hot spots might be. It’s important because more coyotes are on their way. A new batch of pups promises to make a very vocal appearance this spring.

This story was originally published in February 2015.