BISMARCK – Jeremy Guinn and his students don’t have to look hard to see the animal trails in the field next to the building where they work.
“Coyotes like to follow the edges between habitats,” said the environmental science instructor, pointing to the blades of tall, dried grass bent to the ground by the animals as they pass a nearby grove of cottonwood trees.
In this spot where trees and wetland interrupt the prairie south of Bismarck, coyotes dart back and forth. Basketball players at the nearby United Tribes Technical College heard their howls, which is what prompted a student to pursue tracking the animals as a research project.
Several UTTC students have worked with Guinn over the past two years to follow local coyotes’ every move. They placed GPS tracking collars on 16 coyotes, four of which have retained their collars to this day, and receive emails daily with the animals’ locations.
The researchers map those locations on the computer and overlay other maps, such as terrain, to show where the animals choose to call home.
Tracking the critters
The animals move all over Bismarck and the outlying areas, though they tend to stick to certain spots.
“They preferred more undeveloped areas and less trafficked areas of town,” student researcher Shannon Dunham said.
South of the airport are plenty of rabbits, which serve as a key food source for the coyotes, student researcher J.P. Holmes said.
“But then there’s the human food factor in town,” he said.
The coyotes seem to have no problem maneuvering busy roads, though they don’t spend a lot of time inside the city other than in residential areas with lots one acre or larger.
Researchers know this based on the GPS location information they have received from the animals’ collars, and coyotes’ deaths also give them insight.
“None of the coyotes were killed by cars, which surprises everybody considering how often they cross the roads,” Guinn said.
Some of the animals have lost their collars or were killed by hunters.
New developments rising in Bismarck are also having an effect.
Guinn said one coyote used to spend a lot of time along 43rd Avenue Northeast, south of Walmart. As construction pops up along that road, the animal has moved further north.
“We’re definitely not seeing the locations in that section of land like we used to,” he said.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the coyote will stay away forever, Holmes said.
“They’re being pushed out, but, at the same time, I’m sure they’re going to adapt and come back,” he said.
Coyotes tend to hang around one area, though they occasionally making trips five to 10 miles away.
Some go even farther. One traveled from Missouri River Correctional Center land south of Bismarck to Menoken and back. Another, two weeks ago, went a few more miles east to McKenzie Slough.
First of its kind
The researchers say their project is unique among efforts to study the movements of coyotes.
Several major cities have tracked local coyote populations within town.
“There are coyote packs that live inside the middle of Chicago,” Holmes said.
To the researchers’ knowledge, the Bismarck study is the first time people have tried to track coyotes in a smaller urban area surrounded by agriculture. They have sought help on the project from several agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the North Dakota Fur Hunters & Trappers Association, among others.
Guinn said Bismarck does not appear to have large problem with nuisance coyotes.
“Of course, there’s the potential for problems and concerns,” he said. “But they’re not necessarily a new thing. Although it may be the first time a person has seen a coyote in town, chances are it’s not the first time that coyote has been in town in that location.”