Hundreds of reports of coyote sightings in urban areas of Florida

(NBC) - Somewhere near Kent Place in Clearwater, FL, homeowners are waiting for a hungry coyote to take the bait in a wire trap and sign its own death warrant.

"There are just a lot of coyotes in that subdivision, and they're afraid something will happen to one of their small dogs," said John Hohenstern, Pinellas County senior animal control officer.

Even in Florida's most densely populated county, it seems the scrappy predator scientists call Canis latrans is everywhere.

No one knows how many there are here, but everyone is getting in on the act of counting: A county website invites people to record sightings and has attracted hundreds of reports from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg since last year.

"They've adapted very well to the urban environment," said Hohenstern.

In Kent Place, between the highly urban north-south roadways U.S. 19 and Belcher Road, Pinellas Animal Control is trying to trap or kill a coyote for the first time in years.

It is using a live trap, like a cage, that's manufactured for catching stray dogs.

The last time animal control tried this, it didn't go so well, Hohenstern said.

Two coyotes tried to gnaw their way out of snare traps, or loops that tighten around a foot or leg.

"They damaged their legs enough they had to be euthanized," Hohenstern said.

There are no plans to use snares again. The coyotes will be euthanized if caught, but without as much pain. Hohenstern doubts the live trap will work.

One homeowner has been moving the device around Kent Place, adding fresh bait from time to time.

Since the effort started February 16, no coyotes have taken the bait.

Coyotes can be legally hunted all year with guns, dogs, live traps or snares, said Martin Main, a University of Florida professor and coyote expert.

A permit is required to use steel traps, to trap on another person's property or to use a gun and light at night.

Coyotes yap in the night, eat stray pets and consider unsecured garbage a gourmet meal, so some people find the creatures about as cute and cuddly as 37-pound rats.

Main said they multiply because they have found a place in the food chain, eating rats, rabbits and other wild animals whose populations are no longer kept in check by other natural predators.

Love them or hate them, coyotes are here to stay.

"They're smart, they're tough and they can eat just about anything," Main said. "That's made them established and, in some cases, that's also made them a nuisance."

Judging by sightings reported in Pinellas County, coyotes are a little of both.

Some reports on the website thrill at the sight of the scruffy, canine-like creatures roaming local parks and neighborhoods.

Others express serious concern.

One report from last November said a "coyote charged a citizen twice in one day."

Another in February reads, "Two coyotes; One followed a dog walker about 150 yards."

Experts say it's not hard to figure out what a coyote's intentions are.

"They eat just about everything," said Main.

That might include a dog on a leash, stray cats, even calves on Florida cattle ranches and dairy farms.

"You may be very attached to your cat, but the coyote doesn't recognize that," he said.

Although attacks on pets are common, attacks on humans are not.

"To have a coyote bite a person is a real rarity," Main said.

Dog bites are much more common and typically more serious.

In general, Pinellas County has taken a hands-off approach to coyote management and control.

The animals roam Eagle Lake, Wall Springs and other parks in the early morning and late evening hours, said Pinellas County Park Ranger Tony Contarino.

"They like to coexist with the park patrons," Contarino said. "They'll kind of casually walk through the park, look around. They're looking for a meal."

Park employees encourage visitors to avoid close contact with coyotes, protect pets and secure food sources, such as garbage and picnic goodies.

Clearwater homeowner John Armstrong said he grew up living and playing along Allen's Creek and remembers seeing bobcats but not coyotes.

"We never saw coyotes," Armstrong said. "Never heard of coyotes. We always thought that was something out west. You didn't see them here."

Now, Armstrong said, coyotes cruise up and down the Florida Progress trail behind his home almost nightly and it's not unusual for neighbors to hear the animals' conversations over the 6-foot vinyl fences that separate backyards from the trail.

"They don't howl like you think they do on TV," Armstrong said. "They're more like a yapping noise, like a little dog yapping. They talk to each other."

Main said coyotes began moving into Florida in the 1970s as part of a natural migration from their western range.

In 1983, coyotes were recorded in 18 counties.

By 1990, the number had grown to 48 counties.

Now, they are in all 67 Florida counties, from the Panhandle to the Keys.

In the wild, a pair of coyotes might roam a 15-square-mile area, but their range is much smaller in urban areas, like Pinellas, because food is abundant.

They're not picky eaters.

"They're predators of pretty much everything that's small enough to eat," Main said.

That includes grasshoppers, watermelons and Norway rats.

He advises people to treat them like they would alligators, a more established wild creature: Don't feed them, discourage contact and keep your small animals away from them.

If you come across one at home, Pinellas animal control officers advise, make a lot of noise, bang pots together or even throw something at it if it ventures too close.

The goal is to have the coyote retain its fear of human contact.

If one gets really close, Main has a final piece of advice: "Kick the snot out of it."

Copyright 2010 NBC. All rights reserved.