Researcher pinning down behavior of native dogs

Posted: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

WINONA, Minn. (AP) -- Ben Bigalke goes on night patrol a couple of times each week to spy on seven coyotes roaming Wabasha County.

To an outsider, it's dull work, he said. Bigalke drives back roads and listens to electronic 'beeps' through earphones. The source of the airwaves are small radio transmitters attached to neck collars on the dogs.

When Bigalke picks up a signal, he spends the next six hours tracking and marking the location on a map every half hour. He never sees the coyotes, only hears the electronic signals coming to him from the antenna mounted atop the truck.

''Coyote work has never been done in Minnesota so we really don't know what's going on,'' he said.

For Bigalke, the work is interesting and necessary for his master's degree in wildlife management at the South Dakota State University. It also will give the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources a better understanding of coyotes and their pressure on deer fawns.

Bigalke, 22, assisted the DNR with capturing and collaring coyotes in November, with the help of a hired trapper, using leg hold traps. DNR Wildlife biologist Chris DePerno said the trapping effort revealed something about this dog in the state.

''In the southeast, we caught them relatively quickly,'' he said.

The state tried starting the same coyote study in southwestern Minnesota, but couldn't catch any after nine months of trapping.

DePerno suspects the canine disease, mange, is spreading from North Dakota and Canada. While being fitted with collars, juveniles behaved submissively, while adults defended themselves aggressively, Bigalke said. But once subdued with a noose pole, even the adults quieted down. Upon release, they would run a few dozen yards, stop, and look back with curiosity, he said.

He randomly selects one of four, six-hour nighttime periods for tracking to see if coyotes behave differently at different times. To get a bearing, he takes three locations and triangulates them onto a map. At the end of a sample period, he has 12 locations plotted for an animal.

''They aren't moving as much as we first thought they would,'' he said. ''They're primarily moving less than 2 miles every six hours.''

Coyotes likely shift their nocturnal search patterns each spring to take advantage of new food sources, such as newborn fawns, Bigalke said. In May, the DNR will attach radio collars to 20 fawns. Biologists know coyotes kill and eat fawns, but the exact nature of this relationship is unknown. Adding fawns to the study will determine how coyotes interact with fawns and habitat as they search out this temporary, abundant food source. The fawns will be collared at less than a week old, Bigalke said.

Coyote breeding occurs in March, which changes their winter behavior in February, Bigalke said.

''Males are moving around more than females, primarily related to breeding season,'' he said.

Two months after mating, a litter of about five to nine pups are born inside an underground den, where they are cared for by the female. Bigalke is discouraged by human misinformation and attitudes toward coyotes.

''Coyotes hold a big myth,'' he said.

Bigalke said he encounters people who say they shoot one every chance they get. And in Minnesota, that's legal. Yet when Bigalke asks why, he gets few specific reasons for the hunting, other than disdain.

''A lot of people are concerned and you hear all the rumors,'' he said, maybe because the coyote is a scavenger.

But so are bald eagles and ducks on Lake Winona.

''I think it gets blamed for a lot of things that it doesn't do,'' DePerno said.

Lone, nonsocial predators target the easiest catch. For a coyote, that means small rodents and rabbits.

''They're not killing their livestock. There's kind of a mindset that they're bad,'' Bigalke said.

The DNR found that some southwestern Minnesota counties were talking about enacting bounties on coyotes because they thought they were killing all the deer. But deer decreases are the result of severe winters in 1995-1996 and 1996-1997, combined with increased permit quotas to reduce deer damage to private property, the DNR said.

The only bounties Minnesota counties can authorize are for gophers, ground squirrels and woodchucks. Bounties on foxes and wolves were legal in Minnesota until 1965, but were discontinued because they didn't control predator populations and ended up paying corrupt bounty hunters.

As if tracking coyotes at night wasn't enough to do for a graduate student, Bigalke also is tracking 55 radio-collared deer from Rushford to Chatfield to Pleasant Grove to the Zumbro River bottoms and Zumbro Falls. This is the third winter for the DNR's study of deer mortality. The two highest causes of deer deaths are hunting and car strikes.

With this winter's warm weather, Bigalke has seen very little movement between summer and winter deer ranges.

''My deer are in the same spots that they were in July,'' he said.

And as might be expected, adult deer are not suffering at the hand of coyotes.

''We've had two adult deer losses out of 75 over two years from coyotes,'' Bigalke said.

Coyotes are unprotected in Minnesota. That means they can be killed year-round, there are no bag limits and residents do not need a hunting license to shoot them.

Coyotes may be taken in any manner, except with artificial lights or by chasing and running over them with a motor vehicle. Poisons may not be used, except under the regulations of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and federal Environmental Protection Agency.

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