After multiple reports of bold encounters between residents, their dogs and coyotes on the popular Mill Creek ravine trails in southeast Edmonton, the city now has park rangers on the hunt for aggressive animals. Sarah Ryan explains.
Sneaking up on children in backyards, attacking dogs on walks: aggressive coyote behaviour is on the rise in parts of Edmonton, according to area residents and those who monitor the animals’ behaviour.
Crystal Benoit lives in the Avonmore neighbourhood, which is at the far south end of the Mill Creek Ravine.
On a summer night at the end of August, she was in her backyard with her three sons: eight-year-old twins and a 10-year-old. It wasn’t a quiet evening.
Two of the boys were playing on the trampoline, the third was engrossed with his Hot Wheels cars while mom was relaxing around the fire.
“We had music playing, the kids were laughing and it was really kind of loud around here,” she said.
Benoit said out of the corner of her eye, she saw brown movement — a coyote had come around the side of the house and was in the yard.
“It was slowly creeping up on my son, who was playing with the Hot Wheels track.
Benoit said she went into mama bear mode: jumping up, raising her arms and screaming at the animal. She chased it out of the yard, leaving her oblivious children confused and scared.
Afterwards, she explained what happened but said her kids were nervous for the rest of the night. She still is.
“My first instinct was, of course, to protect him. But the aftermath is, why are they so brave to walk up in someone’s yard at six o’clock in the evening? Music is on, fire going, kids laughing and playing, and just to prance right up like he was a piece of meat? You know, it’s not very safe.
Benoit has lived a few blocks away from the ravine for years and says there used to be the rare coyote sighting. But now people are seeing them almost every day.
“I’ve been here for six years and I haven’t noticed this much aggressiveness from the coyotes before this year,” she said. “There was a rare sighting, but not like it is now.”
It’s gotten bad enough that she no longer lets her three cats out in the yard: “They’re not very happy about that, but I’m OK with them not being happy as long as they’re alive.”
Colleen Cassady St. Clair is a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta and has been leading the Edmonton Urban Coyote Project for a dozen years.
The program tracks coyote sightings and works with the city and animal control to try and mitigate causes of conflict between people and coyotes.
St. Clair said there has been an increase in coyote encounters reported to their database over the past month and it hasn’t been restricted to the Mill Creek Ravine.
“I have seen an unusually high number of encounters with coyotes across the city, and most of these involve pets — both cats and dogs.”
Coyote complaints to the city’s 311 line in the first seven months of 2022 (the most recent data) were higher than in the previous five years before that, according to the City of Edmonton.
- January – July 2022: 944
- 2021: 874
- 2020: 925
- 2019: 938
- 2018: 705
Reasons for aggressive coyote behaviour
There are a few possible reasons for the increase, St. Clair said, including rabbit hemorrhagic disease.
It’s a sudden, highly contagious and fatal viral infection that kills rabbits in as little as a day. While it was originally thought to only affect domestic animals, a recent strain moving around the U.S. now appears to also kill wild rabbits.
“It’s been reported across the continent over the last three years and it could now have spread to wild jackrabbits and snowshoe hares, which has happened in other jurisdictions, other parts of North America,” St. Clair said, adding it could be decimating Edmonton’s wild rabbit and hare populations.
“That’s a major prey base for coyotes, so they might be seeking alternative prey like dogs and cats.”
The other potential reason for aggressive behaviour: opportunity.
There was an increase in dog ownership during the pandemic and St. Clair said with that, a huge documented increase of people walking dogs in parks.
“So the encounter rate between coyotes and people with dogs is much higher than it used to be. Even if the proportion of aggressive coyotes is the same, that frequency of encounter is higher.”
St. Clair said there are three ways coyotes generally view dogs: as competitors for prey in their territory, as potential predators of their own young and as potential prey.
“At this time of year, with young coyotes dispersing and territories being a little less defended, probably the third one, prey, is most common — so that might mean that small dogs are most at risk.”
The City of Edmonton said in the past week, park ranger peace officers have received five complaints of coyote activity in the Mill Creek area and adjacent neighbourhoods.
Four of the complaints involved coyote encounters with dogs, including a small dog that suffered serious injuries.
Angeline Letourneau lives in King Edward Park and saw one of the attacks happen last week during one of her twice-a-day dog walks in the Mill Creek Ravine area.
She and her partner were walking their dog early Friday evening, and a family was ahead of them with their three Yorkshire Terriers when a coyote waiting in the grass on the edge of the ravine jumped out and grabbed one of the small dogs.
“And it was gone! Just like that, it took off down into the ravine,” she said. About five people chased after it — Letourneau estimates for about 500 metres — before the coyote dropped the dog but stood its ground.
“It still stayed there on the bridge just staring at them, like kind of challenging them to come closer. Absolutely no fear of humans.”
Letourneau said the Yorkie survived but needed stitches and spent the night at the veterinarian’s clinic.
The city said park rangers have been patrolling the area daily, along with a contractor, to confirm the coyotes that may have been involved in the attacks. As of Wednesday, they have not made that confirmation.
Reports of illegal feedings — why that makes them aggressive towards humans
Do not feed the bears: it’s a common warning in Canada’s national parks, but it also applies to urban coyotes too.
“Wildlife officers I’ve spoken with think they might have been being fed, which is why they’ve sort of lost that natural fear of humans that they typically do exhibit,” Letourneau said.
The City of Edmonton confirmed it is investigating reports of coyotes being intentionally fed food scraps in the King Edward Park area — something St. Clair said is arguably the biggest source of human-wildlife conflict, especially with carnivores.
“It causes something known as food conditioning, meaning the animals associate people with food.
“Once they do that, they completely lose their fear of people. So feeding wildlife creates a very dangerous situation for your neighbours.”
Both St. Clair and the city said there is a high correlation between the intentional feeding of wildlife and coyote habituation and aggression.
“If the wildlife being fed is capable of inflicting some kind of injury, as all carnivores are.”
Letourneau, who has a background in conservation biology and wildlife management, said once coyotes start to associate a particular pet species with food, that behaviour is almost impossible to redirect — especially if the wild rabbit population is dwindling.
“I mean, quite frankly, it’s an easy food source right there — especially little dogs. They’re slow. They’re not usually the most alert. You know, they’re lap pets,” she said ruefully.
Last year, the city passed a bylaw prohibiting the feeding of wildlife — excluding feral cats and birds — which St. Clair said was done in recognition of the research proving it contributes to aggression towards humans.
“Once coyotes start to attack pets and do so regularly in a specific area, that’s an example of that increase in aggression that sometimes signals the need for lethal management,” St. Clair said, explaining the animal would be either be trapped or shot.
“Broad-scale culling is probably not effective to manage this problem, but targeted removal of highly aggressive animals has been shown to reduce conflict, at least in the short term,” she added.
The city said it is continuing to investigate and if park rangers can confidently identify which coyotes were involved in the attack, “through behavioral assessment, lethal management will be initiated.”
Letourneau is angered by the idea the problem may have been caused by humans.
“These animals, by instinct, are afraid of humans and that doesn’t change until humans start to intervene in that,” she said. “Some of these animals are probably going to have to be destroyed.
“I think that’s so unfair because it’s not their fault. It’s very much the fault of people who have been feeding them and absolutely should not be feeding wildlife.”
In the meantime, park rangers have installed four signs in the Mill Creek Ravine area, and more are being arranged.
People are advised to walk their dogs on a leash, keep cats inside and remove all food sources from private properties. St. Clair also said dog owners should never let their pets play with coyotes.
“I’ve heard quite a few people describe that over the years, and I think it even is a little bit of a source of pride, ‘My dog can take on a coyote or my dog knows how to play with coyotes,’ but I think that’s contributing a lot to the problems.”
“Even if you think your dog is safe — that teaches coyotes how to dominate dogs, it teaches them not to be afraid of dogs. It increases problems for other dog owners.”
St. Clair urges Edmonton residents to report coyote sightings to 311 or the Edmonton Urban Coyote Project so experts can gauge the escalation in aggressive behaviour and identify places where illegal feeding might be going on.
“That’s really important to shutting down these situations that become dangerous for people.”
Despite the close encounter with her son, Benoit doesn’t want aggressive coyotes euthanized. She said she would rather see them be trapped and relocated.
“I love animals — no matter what kind — but they shouldn’t be here roaming around the city, stalking after our children or dogs or cats.”
“They need to go live in the wild where they belong.”