South Carolina

‘I live in fear that my children will be next’: Hilton Head, statewide coyote sightings up

Coyotes are now more common than ever in South Carolina. Here’s what you need to know

Coyotes are now present in every county in South Carolina — and are increasingly spotted in peoples' backyards. Here are some facts about the species from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, and a clip of what they sound like.
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Coyotes are now present in every county in South Carolina — and are increasingly spotted in peoples' backyards. Here are some facts about the species from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, and a clip of what they sound like.

For months, Vicki Watts heard the howls outside her home on Chinaberry Drive on Hilton Head’s north end.

They were high-pitched yipping sounds — a coyote chorus — that came to her as she stood in her backyard during both the day and at night.

The howls grew more intense between February and March — when coyotes breed.

At first, her fears centered around the danger to the Chuck-will’s-widow birds that nested on the ground in her yard.

She banged pots and pans in an attempt to scare the coyotes off. That, apparently, didn’t work. The birds are gone now.

Watts’ fears grew to include “Fletcher,” her four-year-old Norfolk terrier, who does his business in the backyard and who, despite the invisible fence Watts had installed, sometimes manages to get around it and wander the neighborhood.

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Vicki Watts, submitted.

Watts spread human hair on the ground in hopes that the scent would frighten the coyotes away.

It didn’t.

On May 22, 2017, Fletcher somehow got past the fence and wandered into the woods that back up to the house. Watts had heard the yipping coming from that area earlier in the day.

When Fletcher wasn’t home after 30 minutes, Watts put on protective gear and headed into the woods where Hurricane Matthew had left a mass of broken and fallen trees.

She then heard a sound she recognized as Fletcher’s whimpering. She found him with a gaping wound across his back.

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Vicki Watts, submitted.

Nearly two years later, her dog has mostly recovered. But now Watts said she “lives in fear that (her) children will be next.” Her twin boys are now 8 years old.

“(Coyotes) threaten everything we love about Hilton Head,” she told Town Council members Feb. 19. “I can’t just teach my children to just stay away from the coyotes’ habitat like I do with alligators. These predators are coming into my yard.”

‘Constant’ sightings

Coyote sightings and reports have been “growing steadily” over the last decade in South Carolina, including on Hilton Head and across Beaufort County, according to David Lucas, the coastal region spokesperson for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

But the agency doesn’t keep tabs on coyote sightings simply because they’re “constant.”

From 1970-2015, there were 367 documented attacks on humans by non-rabid coyotes in the U.S. and Canada, according to a 2018 report by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Two of those attacks were fatal.

Coyotes began migrating to SC 30 years ago. Now you may find them in your backyard.

There’s a myth that the DNR first brought coyotes to South Carolina the state to control the white-tail deer population.

That is not true.

“Populations in South Carolina were established in Pickens and Oconee counties in the late 1970s by houndsmen and coupled with natural immigration,” according to the SCDNR coyote information guide.

Given their adaptability and “relatively high tolerance for human populations,” coyotes have spread “to include all counties in the state,” SCDNR writes.

Increasing statewide concern about coyote populations led state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, (R-Charleston, Georgetown and Horry counties) to propose a bill this month that would award a $75 bounty to hunters for each coyote killed, according to reporting from The State newspaper in Columbia.

Goldfinch said the state should add one dollar to the hunting license fee to fund the bounty and allow coyote trapping year-round.

Watts told Hilton Head leaders the island should invest in a more local, “invasive species eradication” program.

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SCDNR coyote guide, released.

But Lucas said that type of large-scale extinction program would be unlikely to succeed.

“(Extinction programs) can work on individual properties, but I don’t think we’ve seen anything that would suggest that it’s possible to eradicate them all,” Lucas said. “I just don’t think that’s too realistic.”

He said that “landowners have a lot of options when it comes to coyotes on their properties,” including what he called “liberal” hunting and trapping regulations.

Hilton Head town code only allows the shooting of small animals such as squirrels, rabbits, dove and quail.

What can you do?

Coyotes are most active beginning at twilight into the nighttime, according to SCDNR. They hunt small mammals including rabbits and deer fawns, but can also prey on livestock and household pets.

Coyotes “usually hunt alone or in pairs,” and are typically solitary animals, SCDNR writes.

Statewide, coyotes may be hunted throughout the year with a valid hunting license. Residents may trap the animals during the trapping season — Jan. 1 through March 1 — with a valid commercial fur harvest license and a hunting license, according to SCDNR.

If you suspect a coyote is on your property, you can also take non-lethal action:

  • Install fencing: Woven fencing should go at least two feet underground to deter digging.
  • Clean up your yard: Coyotes use bush cover to hunt, so removing vegetation may make hunting more difficult.
  • Add lighting to your backyard: Overhead lighting and parked cars have been proven to scare off coyotes.
Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.