Douglas Lewis had just taken a picture of the coyote and was on his way out of the Folsom State Recreation Area when, he said, he heard the gunshot that killed the animal.
The coyote had been living in the area for at least four years and had never seemed threatening, Lewis said. But it did seem like it was becoming less fearful of people, park regulars and rangers said, which made officials nervous because picnicking families use the recreation area.
“My friends and I used to see him at Lake Natoma … it’s a sanctuary,” Lewis said. “He’s there in the summer, in the winter, it doesn’t matter. It was like that was his little hide-out.”
A wildlife specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture killed the coyote Dec. 22. The animal was not trapped and relocated because California trapping laws and regulations require a trapped animal to be either killed or released immediately.
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“Once a coyote gets habituated, it loses its fear of people,” said USDA Wildlife Services spokeswoman Pamela Manns. Such a lack of fear, she said, “could lead to potential conflicts between coyotes and people.”
Rich Preston, superintendent of the recreation area, said rangers found the coyote hanging around the parking lot in the Negro Bar area, unfazed by humans and vehicles.
“This animal was observed walking right up to a vehicle and sitting there,” Preston said. “Waiting for handouts, basically.”
Following state parks department protocol for dealing with overly friendly coyotes, rangers called in USDA Wildlife Services. Manns said the agency’s specialist was told the coyote was coming within a few feet of people, and the specialist determined it was a danger.
The federal agency has been criticized in recent years for killing too many wild animals rather than using nonlethal means of controlling them.
Camilla Fox, founder and executive director of the advocacy group Project Coyote, said the appropriate way to handle an overly friendly coyote completely depends on the situation. Most of the time, coyotes that are used to humans can be “hazed” into returning to the wild by being sprayed with a water hose or subjected to loud noises. If they’re being fed, that has to stop, Fox said.
Preston said rangers interviewed regulars in the park and learned a transient had been hand-feeding the coyote, which is probably why it was acting the way it was. The concern was it would move on to approaching people in the picnic areas and eventually end up attacking someone, he said.
Bruce Patton, a nature photographer in the Folsom area, said he’s only recently started going to the Folsom State Recreation Area, but he saw the coyote a few times and captured a clear shot of it looking directly at the camera a few weeks before it was shot.
At first, Patton said, “When he noticed I was paying attention to him, and I have a very long lens, he would run away.”
The next time Patton saw it, maybe a month later, the coyote was lying in the road as he drove into the Negro Bar parking area.
He never saw the coyote exhibit any aggressive behavior.
“However, he is waiting in the road so he seems to be starting to get more acclimated to humans,” he said.
Lewis said he’d also noticed the change in the coyote’s behavior in recent months.
“There are some homeless people who live in their cars and they’d come and spend the day there and they’d feed him,” he said.
There were no prior complaints about the coyote, Preston said. The species is common in the recreation area and this is the first time in Preston’s 15 years working there that one has been killed.
“If someone was feeding that coyote, then that’s probably why the coyote was losing its fear of people,” Patton said. “If that’s why … the people who fed it directly or indirectly killed that coyote.”
Lewis said he was inspired to advocate for the coyote because no one else would. And he wants to make sure it never happens again.
Project Coyote, based in Larkspur, works closely with San Francisco and Marin County to organize nonlethal responses to coyotes. The group is part of the Marin Coyote Coalition, which holds community meetings and distributes resources on how to coexist with coyotes.
“Please don’t feed the wild animals!” the caption on Patton’s coyote photo says.