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Harsh winter would be tough on area coyotes

5-26-10  At Poplar Creek Forest Preserve   Cook County forest preserve district biologists take careful datcaptured 3 pups

5-26-10 At Poplar Creek Forest Preserve , Cook County forest preserve district biologists take careful data on the captured 3 pups before releasing them back to their den. The 3 coyoite pups ... two were female and one was male. sun-times photo by al podgorski

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EHD facts

EHD does not affect humans or impact the safety of consumed deer.

EHD is caused by the bite of an infected midge; once there has been a hard freeze, the insects die off for the winter, eliminating new cases of EHD.

It’s the most significant disease of white-tailed deer in the United States

It’s most prevalent in Southeastern United States.

Outbreaks often are associated with drought.

It can result in high deer mortality in some areas (usually 25 percent, but up to 50 percent in rare instances).

Source: Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife

Updated: February 4, 2013 2:41PM

A virus that killed hundreds of white-tailed deer in parts of northeastern Illinois means coyotes here are heading into winter fat and happy.

But the die-off last fall that left numerous carcasses for coyotes to eat means there will be fewer deer around this winter for the hungry critters to scavenge.

And if the weather turns cold and snowy, that will put unusual pressure on the coyotes to find something — anything — to eat, biologists say.

“If we get a real winter — a severe winter — they’re going to be very hard-pressed,” said Chris Anchor, a wildlife biologist for the Cook County Forest Preserve District. “There’s going to be less food.”

So scientists will be paying very close attention to how the animals respond. They’re expected to adapt by eating everything from plants to rodents to garbage, but it isn’t unthinkable that their numbers will drop.

The forest preserve district has been involved for more than 12 years in the Cook County Urban Coyote Study, the nation’s most comprehensive look at the increasingly common canines.

During that span, Anchor and other biologists have captured and tagged more than 660 coyotes in Cook County in an effort to track where they live and what conflicts they cause with people and pets.

But the situation the animals face now is unusual because of a near-perfect storm of environmental factors, including last year’s mild winter and dry summer.

The weather may have created ideal conditions to spread the epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), virus, which is deadly to white-tailed deer, although it doesn’t usually strike in the Chicago area.

This year, the virus may have killed as many as 70 percent of the deer living in northern Cook County, Anchor said.

Coyotes aren’t affected by the virus but have feasted in recent months on the carcasses of deer stricken by it.

The question heading into winter is how the coyotes will fare with one of their staple food sources dramatically reduced.

“Everything’s been scavenged now,” Anchor said. “They’re going to have far fewer roadkill around here. They’re going to be hit hard.”

That’s especially true if the Chicago area eventually gets heavy snow, Anchor said.

“If we get 10, 20 inches, they have a much harder time hunting the fields,” he said.

Nobody expects coyotes to disappear from the area slammed by the EHD virus, simply because the canines eat so many different things.

“If one food supply dries up, they can move on to another,” said Gina Farr, a spokeswoman for Project Coyote, a California-based advocacy group. “They’re probably one of the most resilient animals out there.”

The critters aren’t picky about their meals — they’ll eat anything from rodents to unwary pets, deer carcasses or household garbage.

But coyotes can practically become vegetarians if necessary, subsisting on plant bark, roots, and even juniper berries.

“One of the reasons they are so successful is they are true omnivores,” Farr said, citing a study that found about 100 different types of food in the droppings and stomachs of coyotes.

Still, Anchor and other biologists will be watching to see if the number of coyotes drops in the area hardest hit by the EHD virus.

“Right now, they don’t need to do anything because they’re fat and happy,” said Anchor. “But come February, it’s going to be real interesting.”

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