Hamilton Township resident Jan Bilicki had lived on Clarkstown Road for a decade, but she never heard the region’s newest residents — coyotes — until last summer.

The noise they made sounded a lot like barking, she said, “but it’s got a howl noise to it.”

She had taken wildlife for granted, like many others who live in the rural and semirural parts of South Jersey. That is, until a coyote strolled by her window in the middle of the afternoon this winter.

Now, she walks her dog armed with a big stick.

“To have (a coyote) within a stone’s throw is very, very unnerving because I have small animals in my house, and I know they’re out there and they’re hungry,” she said.

The coyote population has increased sharply around southern New Jersey in the past 15 years. The mixed reactions to their growing numbers underscore the awe and unease that accompany the predators, who have no natural enemies in the state.

Anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 coyotes make the Garden State home, said Andrew Burnett, a wildlife biologist with the state Division of Fish & Wildlife who oversees the state’s coyote efforts.

Coyotes eat plants and animals, targeting rodents and smaller creatures. Burnett said some may target fawns, but coyotes seem to have had little effect on the state’s deer population. The animals instinctively avoid humans, Burnett said, making New Jersey’s thickly forested Pine Barrens ideal.

But a pair of high-profile attacks in 2007 in Middletown, Monmouth County, drew attention to their growing numbers. The first attack targeted a 22-month-old in April, followed a month later by a 5-year-old about a mile away. No one was seriously hurt and these are the state’s only confirmed human attacks.

Locally, officials in Egg Harbor and Hamilton townships said coyotes have not been a problem for residents.

Not natives, but here to stay

The coyote, a species of wild dog, is not native to the East Coast. Instead, the Humane Society of the United States and other biologists said that as European settlers killed off native timber wolves, coyotes steadily moved east into the wolves’ territory.

New Jersey’s first coyote was spotted in 1939 in Lambertville, Hunterdon County, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Like black bears, state biologists believe the first animals crossed the relatively shallow northern Delaware River.

The first local coyote was seen in Lower Township in 1948, according to the DEP. While their numbers expanded in northern New Jersey, it was nearly 40 years before they were seen again here, in the rural, sparsely populated communities of Maurice River Township and Corbin City.

By then, state officials had acknowledged in 1975 that coyotes were permanent residents.

“Once you have coyotes, you got to get used to them because you’ll never get rid of them,” Burnett said.

Coyote sightings have taken off since the 1980s, expanding into practically every town in the state, including some beach communities. DEP records show at least one coyote was seen in Atlantic City in the early 1990s and in Wildwood in the late 2000s.

DEP records show there have been more than 100 sightings in Maurice River Township, the apparent center of local activity, as well as numerous sightings along the Delaware Bay in Cape May County.

The animals are also found across a wide swath of the central pinelands, starting east of the Atlantic City Expressway in Hamilton Township and including parts of Mullica Township and southern Burlington and Ocean counties.

The growing population led the state to allow trapping in 1980 and hunting in 1997. The state has since expanded the hunting season so it runs between late September and mid-March and includes nearly the entire state. Some bow hunting is allowed even earlier.

But few find the elusive animals.

“We might sell 3,000 permits at $2 a piece, and we get less than five people who report a coyote,” Burnett said, adding that most who do shoot coyotes are people out hunting deer.

Two-hundred seventy-three coyotes were killed during the most recent hunting season, Burnett said. Trappers accounted for 204 coyotes, while hunters killed 57 and an additional 12 coyotes were killed by vehicles.

Mixed reactions

State residents have regarded their new neighbors with a mixture of fear and awe, finding the growth of an animal more closely associated with the Far West to be somewhat unsettling.

Mark Demitroff has seen coyotes at a distance near his home in the Richland section of Buena Vista Township. They go into a nearby farmer’s field, he said, then split up and walk at the perimeter of the homes before rejoining each other on the other side of town.

“They come within 500 feet of my house, and normally most animals I’ll yell at and they run away,” Demitroff said. “When I yell at them, they basically howl back, and I think, ‘Oh (expletive), that’s not going to work.’”

Others, such as Bilicki, have taken steps to protect themselves.

Nick Santana runs a 10-acre ranch in the Dorothy section of Weymouth Township, raising animals for his traveling petting zoo, Barnyard Friends. He can hear coyotes most nights, he said. He and his wife have taken steps to shelter his goats, sheep, chickens and ducks with a heavy-duty, woven-wire fence topped with an electrified wire.

They also bought a Great Pyrenees dog, a fearless breed used for centuries by southern European shepherds to protect their flocks from predators. The 150-pound dog, Santana said, “looks like a white polar bear.”

Others welcome coyotes as a part of the wilderness they sought out.

Greg Honachefsky is a retired Division of Fish & Wildlife conservation officer who lives in the Dorchester section of Maurice River Township. He first started hearing local reports of coyotes in the mid-1990s and encountered a range of reactions.

“There are a lot of people who love a sense of wild in the place where they live,” he said, “and a lot of people who fear that sense of wilderness.”

About eight years ago, Honachefsky got a warrant and searched a house in Cumberland County on reports that a man had a wild coyote as a pet. The man had excavated a coyote den with a backhoe, Honachefsky said, killing all but one of the pups, which he kept. The man had to be tearfully separated from the animal.

Even though the animal was successfully rehabilitated, that mixture of cruelty and compassion remains a puzzle for him.

“If you can explain that, you’d probably go a long ways in understanding the relationship between human beings and coyotes,” Honachefsky said.

Contact Derek Harper:

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