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Four-legged immigrants causing stir on island

By Staff | Nov 11, 2015

The black bear in 2011 on Sanibel was difficult to trap, as it was keen on how the traps worked. SCCF

Not all visitors to Sanibel and Captiva Islands are here to enjoy the beaches, sun and relaxation.

Some come over to paradise to dumpster dive, run wild and take up residence without getting invited.

That’s the way some residents of Sanibel feel about their latest guests, the coyote, which was first captured on camera in February of 2011, when one was photographed in the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on the banks of a mudflat.

But the coyote wasn’t the only big furry creature to make its home on the islands, with a black bear making quite a commotion for nearly nine months, before being captured alive near the Point Ybel Lighthouse and being transferred to another part of Florida.

The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Landscaping for Wildlife educator Dee Serage-Century held a Coyotes and Bears on Sanibel seminar last month, as she talked about the nine months officials tried unsuccessfully to capture the black bear and the impact coyotes are currently making on Sanibel-Captiva now.

The black bear, which was a Sanibel resident for a little while in 2011, started to get brave and jump into the island restaurants’ Dumpsters. SCCF

“Both the coyotes and bear showed up around the same time in 2011,” Serage-Century said.

How each species made it over to the islands is unknown, but a couple of potential ways include walking over the Causeway during the late night or early morning hours, or when the tide was low, the animals could have either walked over or swam in shallow waters from Pine Island.

“The tides do get low enough at times that (Pine Island Sound) can be quite shallow,” Serage-Century said. “But they also could have just walked right down the Causeway, as well.”

The biggest splash was made by the black bear, who was sighted many times throughout the island. Food was not a challenge for the bear, as its size continued to grow and grow throughout its time here.

“The bear didn’t have a partner and it surely got bigger when it was here,” Serage-Century said.

Using sweets to lure the black bear on Sanibel was not as effective as it was on other bears. SCCF

When the sightings of the bear starting piling up, City and natural resource officials agreed that removing the bear off the island by the means of a live trap, was the most suitable path.

“There was just too many people on the island in-season and let’s face it, the island is not big enough to support a bear family,” Serage-Century said. “They all agreed, let’s get the bear out safely.”

The bear also started becoming quite the troublemaker, after discovering its dumpster diving ways. It would show up on residents’ porches seeking dinner and eventually found the tasty morsels thrown out by Sanibel’s restaurants in dumpsters.

The first plan of capturing the bear was to bait it into a live trap, with a spring-activated gate. Luring the bear into the trap with sweets, such as donuts and cake, proved to be futile.

Serage-Century remarked that the bear may have been trapped in the past by a similar method and it would have no interest in doing it again.

The federal official in charge of trying to trap the bear went to extreme methods, including making a trail of bacon strips hung in trees held by clothes pins, which led directly to the trap.

“But this bear would have none of that, either,” Serage-Century laughed.

The SCCF even got a taste of trouble from the bear, when he broke into its bee hives, searching for the larvae inside the honeycombs.

“There are no electric fences allowed on Sanibel, so the bear was able to get into our bee hives,” Serage-Century said. “It even broke into our eucalyptus mulch, thinking we had food there.”

Capturing the bear became more dire for its safety, as there were several close calls with car collisions on Sanibel’s roads, as well.

Finally, on a day in October, someone reported seeing the bear down by the Point Ybel Lighthouse. Officials decided to use tranquilizer guns to bring the bear down. The plan was successful, as the bear was captured alive – and sleeping – and transferred to the Big Bend area in Florida, where it is assumed to be living yet today.

But the “Song Dogs” of Sanibel are still very prevalent today on the island.

The Sanibel City Council recently passed a resolution to approve a budget amendment to appropriate $15,000 for a Phase 1 study on determining the number of coyotes on Sanibel.

The study includes studying coyote scat and performing DNA analysis which will provide an estimate of number and the sex of the coyotes on Sanibel.

The Coyote Biologists Working Group will continue to seek grants and other funding to offset the cost of Phase 2, which will be directly affected by the results of the Phase 1 study.

“We will be using this information from the Phase 1 study to help make future decisions on the coyotes,” said Holly Milbrandt of the Natural Resource Department.

Those decisions will affect if the coyotes stay or go and by what method.

Coyotes are classified as a naturalized species as by Florida law. They have now spread throughout to every county in the state, with Sanibel being one of the last vestiges coyotes have been found.

The spread of coyotes in Florida is well documented. In 1983, coyotes populated 18 counties in the state, but in 1990 they occupied 48 counties, while recently, they have been sighted in all 67 counties.

The coyotes filled the niche’ left empty by timberwolves, which numbers disappeared in the 1970’s after overhunting by humans.

“The Florida Fish and Wildlife determined coyotes are native to Florida, with coyotes appearing in the Florida fossil record,” Milbrandt said during a presentation to the City Council about the presence of coyotes on the island. “So they are not considered an invasive species. We have a partnership with Ding Darling Refuge and the SCCF to keep monitoring the coyotes on the island.”

Coyotes breed during the late winter months and has a two-month gestation period. The cubs are den-bound for three weeks before wandering outside the protected area.

In 2015, there have been 23 coyote sightings reported to the City of Sanibel.

The biggest impact the coyotes have had were on the protected sea turtle nests on the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva. Coyote depredation numbers were high on nests over two to three years ago, but with the installation of screens over the nests, the numbers have dropped.

“The screens have worked,” Serage-Century said. “The depredation numbers have dropped below 15-percent since the addition of the screens.”

When coyotes are digging into sea turtle nests looking for a late-night snack on the eggs, they do so by consuming about 20-30 eggs each time.

But the coyotes still pose a threat to the nests, so the study and decisions of what to do with them will continue, until more data comes in.

It is thought the 17-square miles of Sanibel is hosting a family of coyotes, since the animals are very territorial.

“”We’ve never seen a photo of more than two together,” Milbrandt said during the City Council presentation back in May. “Their territorial area usually ranges to 15 square miles and Sanibel is 17 square miles. They are territorial.”

As far as coyote attacks on people, they are very rare. According to the Humane Society of the United States, more people are killed by errant golf balls and flying champagne corks each year, than are bitten by coyotes.

There have been only two recorded incidences in the U.S. and Canada of coyote attacks on people, one happening in the 1980s and one in Nova Scotia in 2009.

The biggest target are peoples’ pets, which it is advised to keep your cats indoors and dogs on leash on Sanibel.

The most important thing residents can do to discourage coyotes from coming on their property is not to leave out food to attract them.

“Don’t leave out food, it’s horrible for the wildlife,” Serage-Century said.

As the study continues to document how many coyotes are actually on Sanibel, residents are asked to report sightings to the Sanibel Police Department at 239-472-3111.