By Gregg Bragg for The Island Connection
Many residents feel it is the variety of wildlife that makes living on Kiawah so attractive.
The endangered Loggerhead Sea Turtle, for instance, is one of the island’s most iconic species, garnering support from one of the largest, all-volunteer support groups on the planet. Loggerheads are also South Carolina’s official state reptile.
Loggerheads have been nesting on Kiawah Island for eons and why not? Firm, sandy beaches and a family-friendly environment are the perfect place for young turtles. However, a variety of wildlife has a price; a variety of predators, which has recently come to include coyotes.
A description, gleaned in part from the minutes of the Town of Kiawah Island Environmental Committee minutes, says coyotes are grayish or reddish brown with slim muzzles, pointy ears and bushy tails giving the overall appearance of a small shepherd type dog of about 23-26 inches tall. Eyewitness accounts generally agree on this coloration but insist they are more like a full-sized German shepherd but thinner, leggier, have a complete disregard of leash laws and are largely unresponsive to voice commands.
Coyotes first appeared on Kiawah Island in 2008. There are now estimated to be a dozen or more. While some claim that number has reached a plateau it is as hard to quantify as it is to decide what, if anything, to do about them. It is just nature, after all and some Kiawah residents are ambivalent about choosing between species when lethal methods are involved. According to Town staff, the impact of coyotes on the island is minimal.
No attacks on people or pets have been reported and the effects on turtles have been small percentage-wise, ranging in the low, single digits (the town uses eggs lost as the definition of depredation).
Furthermore, Town staff point to drawbacks with every possible form of mitigation. Traps and poison can impact the wrong critter while shooting in a residential area can have adverse effects. In one study, cited by Town officials, coyote populations actually increased while mitigation was being attempted.
In light of this, and without agreement on what or how to measure impacts and the apparent plateau in numbers, the Town of Kiawah Island is not pursuing mitigation and has chosen to follow the recommendation of its Environmental Committee to study and report. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Local Turtle Patrol have expressed disappointment with this decision as they argued for action.
SCDNR Representatives Charlotte Hope and Barbara Gore minced no words in recent meetings with Town officials, by calling for lethal remedies.
Further, SCDNR seemed to second Turtle Patrol veteran Joe Pezzullo’s point that coyotes are an invasive, non-indigenous species praying on an indigenous, endangered species with an ever mounting toll. To support their thinking, they cited the example of Yawkey Preserve near Georgetown.
Administrators of the preserve refused to do anything to reduce coyote numbers for approximately three years. Unchecked, coyote populations increased and turtle predation reached 70 percent. Decisive action was then taken and rates of depredation declined. One common definition of depredation is any incursion into a nest once it is laid.
When a nest is opened by predation, any remaining eggs have to be moved in what is probably a doomed attempt to save the refugees. Doomed, because baby turtles affix themselves to the side of their egg near food and air and it is consequently risky to alter that orientation after the first twenty four hours.
Using the “any incursion” metric, there have been 28 depredated nests on Kiawah during the 2014 season, five of which were a total loss. That is a 23 percent rate of depredation as coyotes successfully dropped anvils on Kiawah’s turtles. Counting eggs, as some prefer, still produces an 11 percent depredation rate. However, the current number of 1,465 eggs lost, gets obfuscated because final numbers impacted won’t be known until the nests are evaluated later this summer, which will brings us full circle to the discussion of what should be done about Kiawah’s coyotes.