Wildlife Manager talks turtles, coyote, bear, moose—and dogs

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Labradors Trixie and Kensie explore the Coyote Rock Trail in the Town Forest after a recent snowfall. (Photo by Brian Waterson)

Guest speaker Pat Huckery, District Manager of Northeast Wildlife District of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife), shared news and answered questions about local wildlife at the Conservation Coffee on February 13. Huckery discussed local sightings of bear, moose, bobcat and Spotted Turtles. She also discussed the rise in the local coyote population, and efforts to address complaints about dogs on public land.

Coyotes not a significant danger

Huckery began by stating that local wildlife is not dangerous to humans. “I don’t worry about wildlife in the woods.”  In terms of local predators, she said that the coyote population in eastern Massachusetts has grown to the point where it “fills the territory.” She said, however, that coyotes are not dangerous to humans. “We do not have aggressive coyotes attacking people. They may take a small dog at night. That is not a bad coyote.” 

Huckery explained that many of the reported cases of negative interactions with coyotes involve habituation—when coyotes have become comfortable around humans. She said that bird feeders attract rodents which in turn attract coyotes into backyards and that in some cases people purposely left food out for the coyotes. She said that it was important the coyotes maintain a fear of humans and that she believed they need to be harassed. She stated, however, that coyotes serve an important role in the environment from “cleaning up too many squirrels and rabbits” to eating road kill. She added, “There is a lot of good that comes from coyotes.” 

Huckery said that it is important to understand how to live with coyotes. “We spend a lot of time telling people how to take care of their pets. On our website [www.mass.gov/orgs/division-of-fisheries-and-wildlife] we have a living with wildlife section—including a living with coyote handout.”

When a resident asked if she should be worried about packs of coyotes seen on her property, Huckery replied that she is not afraid of coyotes. “Coyotes do not attack humans for no reason.” She added that, although small pets may be scratched or bitten by coyotes, there is little danger of contracting rabies from a coyote. “We have seen less than a dozen cases in the 30 years we have been tracking coyotes.” 

Huckery explained that the population is not likely to decrease in the near future, since coyotes have no natural predators in the area and that the population is managed only by vehicle accidents or by hunting. 

Dog regulations for public lands 

Resident Tom Brownrigg agreed that local wildlife is not dangerous to humans, “I’ve never been attacked by any animals in the woods—it’s always been a dog.” 

Huckery said that the Fisheries and Wildlife Board held a meeting in early February to discuss new dog regulations that her group has proposed. She said that the proposed regulations came about because, “We have been recording in our eastern Massachusetts wildlife management areas an increase in issues and complaints from sportsmen and sportswomen, as well as from other users like birders, hikers, or people who take their families out to walk our properties. The complaints are: dogs running off-leash, dogs jumping on people, and dogs attacking other dogs. “ 

State-wide dog regs evolving

She explained that on a state-wide level, the area available for dogs to run off-leash is decreasing. The US Fish and Wildlife closed its land to dogs except for hunting dogs; the State Department of Conservation and Recreation closed many of its properties to off-leash dogs; and non-profits including Trustees of the Reservations, Essex County Greenbelt, Audubon Society and the Sudbury Valley Trustees have limited or banned access to off-leash dogs. “We are the last big open space agency where dogs can run off leash.”

The proposed dog regulations require that dogs must be on a leash, and that owners clean up after their dog and take the refuse with them. The proposed regulations would allow hunting dogs or dogs being hunt-trained to be off leash. If the state adopts the new regulations, enforcement will be the responsibility of the Massachusetts Environmental Police. 

Huckery shared public comments she has received about the proposed regulations. She said that many dog walkers felt that their dogs were well-behaved and needed an opportunity to run off-leash. Professional dog walkers said that their business depended on using the wildlife management areas to let the dogs run off-leash. Huckery said, however, that it is illegal to run a commercial business off of a wildlife management area. Huckery said that many wildlife management lands are purchased through a dedicated tax on hunting gear. Massachusetts hunting and sportsman’s licenses include a fee that is used toward the purchase of land. She has heard sportsmen suggest to professional dog walkers, “Because your user group has a need, perhaps you should develop some kind of tax on leashes or on dog food so you can purchase land to run your dogs off-leash.”

When asked about the effect of hunting dogs on the wildlife, Huckery said, “Our greatest concern is for users. We have a specific mandate: support wildlife and wildlife-dependant recreation. We aren’t the Division of Conservation and Recreation, we are the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. We have a group of people who have helped us purchase land for wildlife and for wildlife dependant recreation.”

Conservation Administrator Sylvia Willard asked if Mass Wildlife documents show evidence of negative interactions between dogs and wildlife. Huckery responded that they have two bodies of information: complaints filed with her office, as well as literature on dogs and their impacts on wildlife. She said that people have studied the effects of trails on wildlife, the effect of a person walking on a trail on the wildlife and the effect of a human with a dog walking on a trail. “The effects from having a human on the trail extend out 250 feet on either side of the trail. It affects the bird community and the wildlife community. With a dog the effect is three times greater.”   Huckery said that in her experience, “It is irresistible for a dog to chase wild animals.”   

Resident Tom Brownrigg agreed. “As a birder, you may be watching ducks and an owner lets his dog go for a swim and the birds all fly away. Birds are frightened by dogs running. They see them as potential predators. It just does not lend itself to a birder.” 

Blandings and spotted turtles

Brownrigg stated that MassWildlife plans to fund a population assessment of Blandings turtles and spotted turtles. He asked why the assessment was being done if the spotted turtle has been removed from the state protected/endangered/threatened species list. Huckery said that, although there are many spotted turtles in Massachusetts, surrounding states have significantly smaller populations and include the spotted turtle as a listed species. She said that grants, such as the one which will fund the population assessment, are regional. “We are working with other New England states as a team studying these turtles across their range. It is intensive work. The focus for spotted turtles is to go back to sites where there have been large numbers and see which animals are still there and what the population is now.” She said the Blandings turtle project started last year.

When asked how residents can help turtles that are crossing a road, Huckery said to place the turtle safely off the street in the direction in which it was headed. She said that although the spotted turtle has been delisted, groups are welcome to help document turtle populations. She suggests taking photos of the turtle and submitting the information to the Natural Heritage program (go to Mass wildlife.org then to the natural heritage section). 

Moose, bear, bobcat sightings in Carlisle

Willard said that she had received reports of both bear and moose in town. The moose was seen most recently near the Davis Corridor. 

When asked about recent sightings of bear in Carlisle, Huckery said that the bear population is increasing state-wide and that it has become a concern in western Massachusetts. She said that MassWildlife is developing an emergency protocol that can be used if there is an issue. She said that black bears are not usually aggressive and that because the state has a bear hunt, the bears have “learned to maintain a respectful distance from humans.” Huckery said they are still learning about the density of bears in the suburbs. She said that males often travel miles, but that a sow with cubs will not travel much. She said dens are often under piles of brush and that MassWildlife wants to know where the dens are. “We want to track the bear in Massachusetts. We need to know where they are.” 

Brownrigg shared a photo of a bobcat that he had seen in his yard in November. Huckery noted that bobcats are fairly common but they are rarely seen because they are normally shy. She said, however, that they are adapting. 

Brownrigg asked if a bobcat would be likely to attack a small deer. Huckery responded that Mass Wildlife gets data on the deer population before hunting season begins. This information helps them understand the effect of predators. She said, “In general coyotes do not impact the deer population. We believe if coyotes were taking deer, we would expect it would be fawns. The fawn population has not changed.” She added, “Bobcats are a different predator. We are not sure what will happen with them in more urban environments.” ∆