The coyotes erupted with an outburst of yips and howls that echoed through the darkness of Last Chance Basin. I've heard these songs before, but never on Basin Road, in the "backyard" of downtown Juneau.
The next day a friend took me to the carcass of a deer lying near Gold Creek. Eagles and ravens had scavenged it, but something more powerful had dragged it 20 or 30 feet. Over the next few nights, coyotes dismembered the carcass, cracking the leg bones, breaking open the skull and eating everything but the hide. A motion-triggered camera caught one image of a coyote on the scene.
Throughout December people reported coyotes on Basin Road, and I started asking around. A trapper said he just caught a coyote above Salmon Creek. Several people related a coyote story from the past year, usually involving seeing a lone coyote - on Thunder Mountain, Blackerby Ridge, by the ferry terminal, on Thane Road - pretty much everywhere but Douglas Island. I was intrigued. Coyotes are known in the Juneau area, but they are not common. They may or may not be increasing, but it seems that sightings are up.
Coyotes are notoriously wary and skittish, but they are also famously adaptable, relatively tolerant of people and development. Overall, it's not people, but wolves and snowshoe hares that exert the greatest influence on coyotes.
Hares are the dietary mainstay for coyotes in Alaska, and Juneau is not overrun with snowshoe hares. But hare numbers may be increasing, and this fall trappers, hunters and trackers have reported seeing more tracks and sign than usual. Hare populations fluctuate cyclically, and a natural upswing could be mirrored in the local coyote population.
Juneau area biologist Ryan Scott has followed the reported coyote sightings with interest, but has no definitive way to track local trends or increases in either coyotes or hares. He's seen three coyotes in 28 years in Juneau, and recovered one dead juvenile from the woods above Norway Point just north of downtown. Purely speculating, coyote numbers could be increasing, he said, but he couldn't say if it's connected to any increase in hare numbers.
State wildlife biologist Neil Barten said over the past 12 years that he's been in Juneau; it seems coyotes have become more prevalent in the area, as well as the Gustavus Forelands and on the Chilkat Peninsula.
"People report seeing them around Dredge Lakes, off and on, more so in the past five years," he said. "I saw pictures that a lady in the valley took of a coyote in her back yard, and there were several sightings out by the ferry terminal last winter."
Barten lives on Thane Road and said he's seen two coyotes there over the years. "But I've never heard any yipping here. I've heard them in Gustavus a number of times."
Several trappers with traplines across Lynn Canal on the Chilkat Peninsula, told Barten they never saw coyote sign a decade ago and now are seeing a fair bit of sign there. That fits with the picture in Gustavus, where coyote numbers also seem to be increasing. The opportunity to scavenge dead moose is undoubtedly part of that. Moose naturally moved into the Gustavus area in the early 1970s, and the population expanded dramatically in the 1990s.
"There's more food for coyotes in Gustavus, with the moose," Barten said. "Hunters get moose, there's winter kill, wolves get some and the coyotes get the scraps."
Lauri Ferguson Craig, an interpreter at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, was surprised to see a lone coyote on the frozen lake a few winters ago. It was the first and only one she's seen there. But KJ Metcalfe recalled that coyotes were not unusual there in the 1960s. Metcalfe served as a ranger at the center from its opening in 1962 until 1969.
"I used to see a lot of coyotes out there, four or five, a half a dozen, more towards the skater's cabin side of the lake," he said. "It was just in winter that they'd be noticeable - they might've been around otherwise, but they were obvious against the snow and ice. I can remember seeing them curled up and sleeping on the snow covered frozen lake."
Nick Yurko has been trapping and exploring this area for 40 years. "I'm seeing more than I used to, maybe the population is up a bit," he said. "A week ago I saw one run across Montana Creek Road on the way to the archery range. I was cutting firewood in late November and I saw two (on separate trips) on the road out near Bridget Cove."
He occasionally catches them in wolf sets, but doesn't target them.
"Generally if you've got wolves in the area they'll eat coyotes, or just kill them," he said.
Juneau outdoorsman Chad Kendrick grew up in Idaho and is quite familiar with coyotes. Marmots could be a good food source in summer, he said, and he's seen coyotes on Mount McGinnis eyeing mountain goats.
"We'd sit at the gun range with big spotting scopes watching goats, and see the coyotes working them, looking for a chance to pick up a kid," he said.
He pointed out that this area is not ideal habitat, but coyotes meet their needs by covering a lot of ground. They also move in and out of new areas searching for food and territories.
"They migrate into to an area, and they take a big area and range," he said. "It'll be interesting to see if they adapt and thrive."
Riley Woodford is a writer and producer with the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.