LINCOLNTON, Ga. (AP) — She hadn’t seen the trap. In a heartbeat, she was held against her will in the woods of east Georgia.
Morning came. With it was a man in a black Ford pickup. He approached her cautiously. He slipped a rope around her neck. Moments later, her feet were bound, her mouth covered.
Carrying her gently, the man placed her in the truck’s bed. A big motor rumbled, wheels spun, mud flew. She bounced in the back until the machine stopped at a knot of other men. They crowded around for a closer look.
She didn’t struggle; no use in that. Her eyes followed the man who captured her. What would he do?
The man reached for a canvas bag filled with tools. She would be his 19th.
This month, the female coyote caught 120 miles east of Atlanta joined a growing group of others outfitted with GPS collars. She’s now part of a two-year study focusing on the creatures’ roaming habits. By the survey’s end, scientists will have tracked about 160 coyotes in Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. It’s the largest rural study of coyote movement behavior in the nation.
Mike Chamberlain, a professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of Georgia, is heading the study. Its findings, including DNA samples from each animal, will be added to a growing coyote database at Princeton University.
The survey focuses on animals taken by professional trappers in several counties near Augusta; on tracts across the Savannah River in South Carolina; and from the coastal plains south of Auburn, Alabama. Its $1 million cost is borne equally among the states.
At present, Chamberlain said, we don’t know much about Canis latrans.
“I get constant, constant, constant questions about coyotes from farmers and landowners,” said Chamberlain.
Chamberlain readily admits he cannot answer all the queries, though part of his doctoral dissertation dealt with the creatures. One reason: Previous studies on coyote travel have focused on smaller tracts; this survey, which began in January, encompasses hundreds of square miles.
“If we’re going to understand this animal’s behavior, we’ll have to start studying it . on a larger scale,” he said.
The animals’ collars will beam their locations every four hours to a satellite, which will bounce that data back to an online server. Chamberlain can keep track of study subjects from a computer on the university campus. A Georgia coyote outfitted two weeks ago is now in South Carolina, Chamberlain noted.
The study has ecological ramifications. Biologists warn that coyotes in some areas are having a devastating effect on fawns — and that has implications for future generations of the white-tail deer. They also dig up and devour sea-turtle eggs, further imperiling species already endangered.
The survey, Chamberlain said, ought to show how coyotes use the landscape in their travels. That could help another species, Homo sapiens, coexist with them.
“They’re not going anywhere,” he said. “This is an animal we’re going to have to learn to live with.”
They’re restless. Coyotes came to the South from their native western ranges about 50 or 60 years ago, crossing the Mississippi in a relentless push for food. In Georgia and other states, they found a smorgasbord: open trash cans, pet food left outside, pets. Coyotes live in every state in North America; no one knows how many.
As they moved, some coyotes mated with wolves and dogs, said Bridgett vonHoldt, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton. She recently took over managing the New Jersey university’s coyote database, which has DNA samples from more than 1,000 animals.
None of her data, she said, has been collected from animals wearing GPS collars. Most of the Princeton samples came from road kill or trapped animals. She’s anticipating results that include how coyotes move.
The study is overdue, said Bradley Bergstrom, a biology professor at Valdosta State University. Bergstrom is a member of the science advisory board for Project Coyote, a nonprofit organization stressing a peaceful coexistence between humans and coyotes.
Coyote No. 19 had topaz eyes. They flashed in the morning sun as Dan Eaton, her captor, reached for his tools, a tape and caliper. He took rapid measurements — skull width, the length of snout, feet and body. She was 3 feet long, 20 inches tall. He hoisted coyote No. 19 into a sling attached to a scale. She weighed 31 pounds — a healthy, well-fed animal.
The collar, a leather band affixed with a black transmitter the size of a spice canister, came next. Eaton unwrapped her feet, her muzzle. He kept a noose-style rope around her neck.
He loosened the noose. “Go on, go,” Eaton said. “Git out of here.”
Chamberlain watched nearby. “I think there’s a growing thirst for knowledge about these animals,” he said. “The bottom line is, we’re trying to figure out how they’re getting here.”
No. 19 leapt. She danced in the air before landing on her rear legs. They coiled and shot her into a line of pines. She was gone.