As the sun sets and the cold and still winter night begins, off in the distance it is not uncommon to hear a long, high-pitched howl. It may be from a kennel of sled dogs, or possibly a pack of wolves, but it is just as likely that this sound may be the song of the coyote.
"Coyotes came in (to the Kenai Peninsula) about 20 to 30 years ago, and they're very adaptable to human-settled areas, so they are in Kenai and Soldotna. I've even seen them crossing the road at the 'Y,'" said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Unlike larger-bodied wolves, coyotes have a slight frame. According to Selinger, they average 2-feet high at the shoulder and are approximately 4-feet long, including their bushy tail. They also typically weigh 22 to 33 pounds, which is about one-third the size of wolves.
It is unclear how many coyotes inhabit the peninsula, since a census of the species has never been conducted, but it is believed that this area, along with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Copper River Valley, support the highest densities of coyotes in the state.
Still, the secretive nature of coyotes makes them an animal seldom seen by most Alaskans, but currently chances are as good as any to spot on of these elusive creatures, due to booming numbers of their prey.
"Their population does cycle-up with relative food abundance and right now the snowshoe hare cycle is up, and in some locations we've also seen an explosion in the red-backed vole population," Selinger said.
Hunted by a single coyote or occasionally in pairs, snowshoe hares, voles and other rodents, such as shrews, make up the bulk of a coyote's diet. They are also known to eat marmots, ground squirrels, muskrats and insects, but Selinger said they are very opportunistic in regard to feeding.
"They can make a living out of just about anything. They're good at scavenging and will often take advantage of a moose carcass brought down by wolves. They'll also eat fish, so in a pink year, like we just had, they'll eat salmon carcasses that wash up on low tide. They'll even occasionally sneak in and take pet food or garbage that has been left out near homes," he said.
Unfortunately, coyotes don't always draw the line at pet food, so pet owners should be cautious, especially if not living far from wooded areas.
"They do present some danger to household pets. Smaller dogs and cats could be utilized as a food source," Selinger said.
The pendulum swings both ways, though, since like other canids, coyotes are susceptible to rabies, distemper and other diseases that may cause periodic declines in their populations. However, Selinger said there has never been reported case of rabies in a wild canid on the peninsula.
Also, while not as sought after as some other fur-bearing species, coyotes are annually hunted and trapped for their pelts. The hunting season runs from Aug. 10 through April 30, while the trapping season is from Nov. 10 through March 31. The bag limit for hunted coyotes is 10, but there is no limit on the number that can be trapped.
For more information on coyotes, visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's wildlife notebook on the Internet at http://www.adfg.state.ak.us/pubs/notebook/furbear/coyote.php or call Fish and Game at 262-9368.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org