by SC Writer Jan Holly
City Council and an aroused public engaged in a passionate debate over the management of Sanibel’s growing coyote problem at its meeting Jan. 7 at City Hall. The discussion was sparked by The Coyote Management and Education Plan prepared by the City of Sanibel’s Natural Resources Department.
As outlined by Natural Resources Director James Evans and Deputy Director Holly Millbrandt, the plan is designed “to assist in effectively and humanely preventing and solving conflicts between coyotes, people, and pets.”
The Plan stipulates that successful management depends in part on “education and awareness of residents. Education is the key to empowering residents to make appropriate decisions regarding their safety and managing their property and pets,” the Plan recommends. “This involves decreasing food attractants, taking precautions with pets and creating tolerance of normal coyote behavior. The educational campaign should focus on how residents can coexist with coyotes successfully.”
According to Evans, the plan is based on “the best available science and data throughout the state and country. There are not a lot of formal programs out there,” Evans said, adding, “this plan is consistent with Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s best practices.”
The plan argues against culling of the coyote population. “Lethal control is a potential tool,” Evans said. “Non-selective coyote removal programs are unsuccessful, but targeted removal of individual coyotes may be warranted.”
Evans gave strong support for the document. “I stand by the report. It is a policy document in the end. It will do the job and help us manage coyotes on Sanibel.”
Islanders raising concerns during public comment were less sanguine about the benefits of the Plan. “The Plan has the best intentions, but we need more responsible results and outcomes,” said one homeowner, who also reported that coyotes have been seen, during the day, within 10 feet of a playground in her neighborhood.
“Dogs are not safe,” she said, “and my grandson and I have been followed by coyotes many times.”
Islander Georgianne Nienaber, taking the opposing position, praised the plan as “excellent. It has been implemented across the country. Culling is not effective. It can increase population. We have learned to live with alligators, but coyotes are new to Sanibel.”
Islander Bob Holder questioned the plan’s data and conclusions. “According to the plan, the problem is not the coyotes, but people needing training. I am looking for data on the population. What is the range of population today that is giving rise to coyote encounters? Is it true that coyotes are a positive force? None of this is addressed.”
Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Executive Director Ryan Orgera acknowledged that “we do need to know more. We should embrace this plan as the logical first step as best use of funds.
“Indiscriminate culling will absolutely lead to a larger population,” Orgera added. “I admit that’s a hard sell. But the science is clear. It is not comforting. We should take the steps that hundreds of other communities have tried.”
Barbara Joy Cooley, chair of the Committee of the Islands’ Environment Committee, praised the City “for this first step. I hope we can gather more information. With rabbits here, coyotes will be here. Thank you for the cautious and scientific approach.”
Councilman Richard Johnson cited Council’s responsibility to protect “the personal safety of our citizenry, and we have a problem. I hear this loud and clear,” he said, pointing to education “as Number One on my list. We have an opportunity to learn more.
“Thank you to our Natural Resources folks,” he added. “We charged them with bringing this plan to us very quickly. We should look at the plan and use it as a first step. We must keep children and pets safe. We have had problems in the past with alligators, but alligators are confined to water. Coyotes have free range over island.”
Councilwoman Holly Smith argued against culling. “Culling gives an unintended false sense of security. I want to learn more about this plan. This is our start,” she said, “where we go before we make a drastic decision to eliminate the species. Moving forward on the plan is where we should start.”
Mayor Kevin Ruane recalled Holder’s pointed question about coyote population size. “The question is valid. How many do we have? Are we producing more by culling? Are we producing more by not doing something? Both sides are passionate. I am not trying to advance a cause. I worry about safety and welfare. We have a lot more to do.”
Councilman Jason Maughan made an impassioned argument about public safety concerns. “Public safety must dominate. Coyotes are not natural on the Island. Residents tell me they are terrified abut walking on the island. That sets off alarm bells.
“This is a plan for Chicago and New York. At best, it is a biased conclusion. The plan is to say that culling is not the answer. I support culling. The people who don’t want to cull are the drafters of the plan—for a no-cull plan. This is not what I expect the staff to prepare and present. There is no reference whatsoever to culling on barrier islands. I would like to hear from experts and to hear both sides. This is the Humane Society’s agenda. Coyotes are not shy on this Island. They are unscared of people. I will not stand by and say that every animal has to win, and certainly not for an invader.”
Ruane concluded the discussion by recommending that the City look to other barrier islands for data. “This is a good first step, but a baby step. It is a step we asked of the City in three weeks’ time. We have to go down the education and research path. We don’t have a silver bullet. But we must address comprehensively. I think I hear this from the people and from across the dais. We need to give staff next steps to accomplish.
Maughan recommended looking specifically to North and South Carolina “for barrier island landscapes. Let’s see what they did. We must read about turtle-friendly barrier islands, the Carolinas.”
At the discussion’s conclusion, Ruane recommended that the coyote threat become “a recurring item on [Council’s] agenda, to hear regularly whatever progress Natural Resources has made. As you give us guidance we will give you guidance.”