Challenges on a Growing Landscape

Sixteen Mile Creek and the landscape it connects to (and drains water from) represents a huge natural world covering farm countryside, nature sanctuary and city alike. The size and beauty of this creek and its watershed should be a source of pride for people living in the Halton region – but with such a beautiful landscape comes big responsibility: we are responsible to nature, but also to our children and grandchildren, who will still want to see and visit nature in their countryside, breathe fresh air, and drink clean water.

Sixteen Mile Creek is seated in the middle of one of the fastest growing regions of Canada. Just to the northeast, in Peel Regional Municipality, urban and suburban expansion have exploded over the last century, and expansion is ever-accelerating due to technological power and population growth. It has turned Mississauga from farmland into a cityscape stretching three times as far northwest as Oakville’s northern limit, built-up completely to its city borders. And now, Brampton’s lightening-fast expansion north of Mississauga has its sights set on Caledon’s border. An equivalent amount of cityscape, if built in Halton Regional Municipality instead, would cover almost all of Sixteen Mile Creek’s farmland, as well as nearly all of Halton’s most impressive creek areas and forests – which are some of the largest and best remaining forests in this part of Ontario.

In a landscape of drastic changes, which could some day see the cityscape spread beyond Oakville to meet with Milton and beyond, we must plan now for the future we want to have, and safeguard our natural spaces for our own future, and that of all the generations to come. Not only do we need natural habitat space, but we need big, broad, solid chunks of habitat with interior natural space. These are far more valuable than the needle-thin ribbons of creeks we too-often leave crowded by roads, buildings and concrete.

Once an ecosystem has been removed it cannot be returned to its full former grandeur. Our incredible natural ecosystems – a part of our rich natural heritage – include species-rich forests and wetlands that have been slowly developing over more than 10,000 years. While habitat restoration is both an important and necessary cause to replace what we’ve lost, we must never forget that natural remnant ecosystems are a thousand times more valuable than the ones we create artificially, containing species and habitats that may be lost entirely if they are not protected now. The decisions we make now will be worn by all those alive in the centuries to come – let’s be sure to make the right ones!

UrbanExpansion
Even from space, the urban sprawl of neighbouring Mississauga and Brampton shows up clearly, as a crust of grey concrete covers all but a few thin green ravines snaking their way through the artificial landscape, dwarfing modern Oakville (for now). But the fate of most of Sixteen Mile Creek still hangs in the balance, even though some pieces are protected by the Niagara Escarpment Commission and the Ontario Greenbelt. Even now, it is clear that natural areas (dark green) are vastly outnumbered by farmland (most of the light green). Both farmland and nature fight for shared space in the relentless modification of our countryside – each extremely important in its own unique way. Careful consideration and lots of public pressure is needed to balance the need for these vital lands against the wants of a growing populace.
Sixteen Mile Creek faces a long list of challenges:
  • competition of natural space for:
    • farm land
    • low-density residential developments
    • low-density business sectors
  • fragmentation and destruction of remaining habitat
  • permanent loss of fertile land (soil extraction for resale occurs in nearly all developments)
  • loss of recreational green space (eg: conversion of golf courses to developments)
  • resource extraction (eg: mining of rock and aggregate)
  • water table/groundwater modifications (eg: from mining, water redirection)
  • artificial stream modifications/redirection
  • light pollution
  • roadkill
  • contamination:
    • road salt
    • residential and industrial runoff
    • wastewater (treated) and wastewater overflows (untreated)
    • sedimentation from erosion
  • invasive species
  • encroachment of private landowners onto conservation lands
  • conflict between citizens and nature:
    • mosquitoes
    • wild animals
When Nature Gets Too Close: “The Wild” Meets Modern City

Few wild animals are so unfairly opposed, blamed, feared and vilified by the average citizen as the Eastern Coyote. Hardly a year goes by without coyotes making the news around Sixteen Mile Creek at least a few times. With headlines like “growling coyote approaches students” or “coyote gets too close for comfort,” it is clear that discomfort runs high. But how deserved is this fear?

Pinetum Deer Cam Dec 16-18, 14 375
An Eastern Coyote in the Hamilton region – barely 5-10 minutes from downtown – looks up from scavenging a deer carcass, wary of a sound heard in the distance. Without a well-placed automated wildlife camera, such a close photo would not have been possible – healthy wild coyotes are easily spooked by humans, and prefer to stay far away when possible.

In southern Ontario, where wolves, bears and cougars have long been eliminated from our daily lives due to historical habitat loss, a feeling of complete safety in nature is the norm. In such a safe place to live, some people grapple with the idea that a wild dog-like animal could be living so close to home.

To make matters worse, even as a multicultural society, many of us, from many different backgrounds, were raised with stories of wolves and coyotes terrorizing farms and townsfolk – or eating people, as with Little Red Riding Hood. Culture fans the fire of coyote fear – it seems logical to assume that anything larger than a fox or a raccoon is unacceptable and dangerous. Where did these coyotes come from? Are they a new problem? Why is nobody doing anything about it?

The truth of the matter is, unless you have been living here for more than 100 years, you and your family have been living safely with coyotes in Ontario. They are no more dangerous now than they were when you were a child, and in pretty near all situations they have been living nearby. Even citizens of cities like Toronto, London, Niagara Falls, Hamilton and Mississauga live with coyotes in their ravines and natural lands, because this species is highly adaptable and good at staying out-of-the-way. If they appear more common in recent times, it may be because we are eliminating, shrinking or encroaching on their habitats at a faster pace today than ever before – while at the same time, the lazy treatment of garbage and compost, and sometimes even the outright feeding of coyotes, is habituating them to humans. It is these destructive coyote-feeding problems that bring coyotes “too close for comfort”.

Why do we need to learn to co-exist with coyotes?
  • coyotes are actually quite safe to live around, especially when humans do not give them food
  • coyotes are nearly impossible to eradicate

It is nearly impossible to safely, selectively trap, poison or kill coyotes in an urban and near-urban setting, and their intelligence makes any trapping very difficult. This is further complicated by the fact that breeding coyotes produce far more young than there are territories for, so new young coyotes quickly re-enter the city from rural areas even when older ones are removed from the city. Most coyotes killed in active hunts or culls are young, inexperienced, roaming coyotes looking for new territory, 50-80% of which would have died off naturally even if the hunter had done nothing at all. Killing coyotes off is simply not feasible – deadly force does not work to control the population. There are too many, they are too widely-distributed, and they breed too much. Consider too that if deadly force did work, even though it is unnecessary for management, there is a good chance we would have killed them off already in the past, especially given the coyote’s reputation with both city dwellers and farmers.

But all of this is beside the point – healthy wild Eastern Coyotes are quite skittish and fearful of humans (even very short humans). Most coyotes prefer to stay far, far away from human activity, and could live quietly and safely in the woods behind your house without ever letting you know. These “secret coyotes” are the healthy, successful wild animals that live harmoniously with humans by avoiding humans. Coyotes do not see humans as prey, and most of their diet comes from small animals like rabbits, squirrels, rodents, fruits, vegetables and dead animal carcasses they scavenge. But they are curious, cautious, and intelligent; they have been known to observe humans, causing some people anxiety or alarm. This is not hunting behaviour, but it is important to not turn your back and run away, because just like with dogs, this can set off a ‘chase’ instinct, especially in young coyotes with stronger play instincts. If they continue to come closer on their own, it is a sure sign that someone has been giving them food.
Even so, coyote bites and scratches are very, very rare – in all of Canada (coast-to-coast) as of 2015, we averaged only 2.4 coyote bites/scratches per year over the previous 10 years. Compare this to 460,000 domestic dog bites per year – 42 per hour! Statistically speaking, in Canada there are more reported dog bite injuries every 4 minutes that there are coyote bites or scratches in a whole 12 months. By those numbers, we should be eradicating the domestic dog, not the coyote.

Coyote-related fatalities are so rare they are almost completely unheard of – in all of recorded history, only one person has ever died from a coyote attack in Canada (only 2 in all of North America), and even then, it did not happen in Ontario. Not a single man, woman or child has ever died from a coyote in Ontario. Again, we cannot even say the same about dogs – between 1990-2007, domestic dog bites killed at least 28 people in Canada.

COYOTE COEXISTENCE 101: DO NOT FEED, DO NOT FEED, DO NOT FEED

The single most important thing you can do to keep both humans and coyotes safe is to make sure that you do not feed them, either intentionally or unintentionally. Feeding coyotes is not kind, as it changes their behaviour and could eventually lead to them being killed by animal control.

Coyote feeding is far too common – from students leaving scraps for a local ‘pet’ coyote, to a backyard nature photographer leaving bait so they can get that “perfect shot”, to animal lovers who want a “deeper connection” with their local wildlife. There is no good way to feed a coyote without changing its behaviour – feeding changes their fear of humans, and lures them into human yards and parks near people and pets. If you have succeeded in feeding a coyote enough to see it regularly, you have already massively changed its behaviour, and you may have personally signed its death warrant. There is a saying for this: “a fed coyote is a dead coyote.”

Even more common than intentional feeding is unintentional feeding: putting meat in backyard compost (a big no-no), improper storage of garbage, leaving pet food outdoors, over-filling bird feeders leading to attracting rodents (which attracts coyotes), or with farmers, leaving dead livestock close to yards. Try to remove anything that might bring coyotes closer to you.

Coyote feeding (intentional or otherwise) is responsible for pretty near all cases of human-coyote conflict, although occasionally outbreaks of mange can lead to more frequent sightings as well. Behaviours of fed coyotes range from coyotes hanging around increasingly “too close for comfort”, to growling, to approaching humans and the very rare cases of nipping or scratching them. These bold coyotes have come to associate humans with free food handouts, like seagulls in a fast food parking lot. But unlike with seagulls, the results with coyotes include rare cases of human and house pet injury.

What can I do?
  • never feed a coyote
  • tell others not to feed coyotes
  • do not leave food outdoors that may attract coyotes, especially: meat, bones, pet food, dead animals
  • report anyone you see feeding coyotes to Oakville By-Law enforcement, as they are needlessly endangering both coyotes and other residents
  • keep your pets either indoors, within your (ideally fenced) yard, or properly leashed while out walking
  • report any unusual, mange-ridden, aggressive or dangerous-looking coyotes using Oakville’s Online Reporting System.
  • if you think the danger is more pressing, you can contact the Oakville Humane Society directly at 905-845-1551 (or in extreme cases of immediate danger, call 911)
  • if an ordinary coyote is hanging around too close for comfort, consider “hazing” it with negative re-enforcement:
    • stand tall, be assertive, yell loudly, wave arms, make big visual motions (opening and closing an umbrella works well), or throw objects near (not at) the coyote. Keep this up until it is scared away, and do this whenever you see it
  • request Oakvillegreen to deliver a presentation to your group or school on ‘Co-existing with Coyotes’ (more information on how to book in our Education Programs pages).

More information on coyotes and human-coyote coexistence may be found here:

Town of Oakville Coyote Information Page

Coyote Watch Canada

Town of Oakville Wildlife Strategy (Coyotes starting on on page 21)

Ministry of Natural Resources Eastern Coyote Factsheet

Read more about ADVENTURE AT SIXTEEN MILE CREEK

All photos and text provided by David d’Entremont.