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Reporter's notebook: To catch a coyote in the city

Scientists with the National Park Service have launched a first-of-its-kind monitoring program of coyotes living among the skyscrapers and dense urban neighborhoods of Los Angeles.  The program, which was announced on Tuesday, is designed to increase understanding of how the animals are able to exist in an environment utterly counter to their evolved habitat. 

Little is understood about how coyotes have been able to live successfully in the area. 

"Right now, we know nothing about coyotes. We know that there’s some around. We have no idea how they’ve persisted down here," said Justin Brown, an ecologist with the National Park Service. “Hopefully we get a few animals collared, we get some very interesting data out of them that then allows us to identify where these animals are moving, how they’re moving around the environment and understand a little bit about their ecology."

Coyote populations have exploded around the country in recent decades. Stan Gehrt, a professor of wildlife ecology at Ohio State University, has been conducting a study of urban coyotes in Chicago since 2000. He said the population took off in the 1990s. 

"What happened in the 90s is the pelt prices, or the fur prices, for coyotes and all of our North American furs crashed," Gehrt said. "Basically the harvest was reduced in rural areas, and so what happened is you’ve got an increase in survival for these animals."

Gehrt said the increase caused coyotes displaced from natural territories to move into cities. Now, the animals have spread from the West into several cities along the East Coast. Those cities are now having to deal with a predator with which they have no historical experience. 

As a resource, the Chicago study has challenged many commonly held notions about urban coyotes, including that they are highly dependent on human food and pets for their survival. Gehrt said the study has show urban coyotes in Chicago have been more reliant on prey such as voles and rabbits that they are able to scrounge. 

Los Angeles — which has likely been home to coyotes since before human development — could provide more insight into coyote behavior. Gehrt said he'd be interested to learn if that history of coexistence has caused a different dynamic. 

“You have many more generations of both coyotes as well as people living with coyotes occurring in L.A. And so that could create some different patterns than what we see,” Gehrt said.

Justin Brown, who studied and worked under Gehrt, has begun a similar program for Los Angeles. KPCC's Jed Kim followed Brown throughout the early days of the program, as Brown tracked the first monitored coyotes in downtown Los Angeles. 

Below is the reporter's notebook he kept during that time:

April 29: Setting the bait in downtown LA

(Caption: Justin Brown, an ecologist with the National Parks Service, places coyote bait in front of a trail camera inside Vista Hermosa Natural Park near downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday, April 29, 2015. Photo: Maya Sugarman)

Brown sets the bait and motion-detecting cameras in Vista Hermosa Natural Park, directly adjacent to downtown Los Angeles. His goal: to find the perfect candidate for his Los Angeles urban coyote study — an adult that lives within an area densely populated by humans. 

"This is one of the sites I really want a coyote, because this is going to be one of the most interesting coyotes I’ve ever got my hands on," Brown says. "There’s not a lot of habitat here for them to move around."

The park is a 10-acre island of green in the midst of heavy development. Skyscrapers loom above the park's trees. With no significant natural areas within range of the park, any resident coyotes must likely travel down busy streets during their nightly forays. 

"It’ll be real interesting to see how they’re moving through this area," Brown adds. "I’m sure they’re going to show us some of those little green strips that we would never have found on our own.”

Brown has heard reports of coyotes in the park, but the number of sightings have declined recently. 

“Right now, I don’t even know that I’m going to trap this site, because I just don’t know if they’re here," he says. 

(Caption: When the trail camera at Vista Hermosa Natural Park detects motion, a text message will be sent to this smartphone. Photo: Maya Sugarman)

In hopes they are still frequenting the site, Brown buries a calf's haunch off-trail. He wants to get coyotes used to coming to the area. He'll come back with new bait over the coming days and weeks, if necessary. 

The trail camera he sets up is pointed at the baited ground. It has a built-in cell phone that will send him a picture if the motion-activated shutter gets tripped.

Later that night, success. The camera captures a dark, grainy image of an adult coyote. 

May 4: Capture attempt #1

Earlier, during the day, Brown set a trap in the park and baited it with a dead bird. He says the camera has picked up coyotes every night the trap has been set. 

Tonight, he aims to capture his first urban specimen. At 8 p.m., we gather and wait to see if the trap gets sprung. If it does, Brown and intern Jenny Fitzgerald will head in to collar the coyote. Brown says he'll do it all without sedating the animal. He's never been bitten. 

If we're lucky, the trap will catch something early enough that we can go home and sleep in beds. If not, we're sleeping in our cars. 

(Caption: Justin Brown, ecologist, and Jenny Fitzgerald, carnivore intern, wait in the parking lot of Vista Hermosa Natural Park to see if a coyote enters a trap. Photo: Jed Kim)

8:36 p.m.: Things are getting tedious. I turn on my recorder to benchmark our progress.

11:30 p.m.: One or more coyotes have triggered the camera, but none have ventured inside the trap.

Brown sets up a cot to sleep in the open air of the parking lot. The intern and I head to our vehicles. Brown will wake us if the trap sends out the alarm. 

Late night memo from my car

5:50 a.m.: I wake to Brown tapping on my window the next day.

“The animal came through a couple times last night. We got him on the cameras, but obviously we didn’t catch him, so we’ll have to give it another try,” he says. 

This raises a concern about deadlines. Brown has three collars and hopes to catch three coyotes, but they have to be adults. Pups are due to come out of their dens soon. He doesn't want to trap one of those accidentally.

If he doesn't get any adults in the next couple of weeks, he'll have to postpone capture attempts until September.

“I’ll probably try again tonight,” Brown says.

“That is rough,” I tell him.

“Yeah, I mean, I’ve got to catch three animals down here," Brown says. "We’ve got to get it done, and I’ve got a limited window to do it in, so…”

“All right,. Good luck" I say. "I don’t think I’ll be joining you tonight.”

Brown laughs. “I understand. It can definitely be tough coming out night after night.”

Tomorrow, Part 2: Why I really should've gone out that night

This story has been updated.