BALD HEAD ISLAND, N.C. (WECT) - An island community is seeking to protect an endangered native species by reducing the population of a non-native intruder.
Officials on Bald Head Island said they had limited options for dealing with a coyote population they’ve found has increased significantly over the last year.
According to the village’s website, The Bald Head Island Conservancy discovered sea turtle nests were being dug-up and the eggs eaten this summer.
The organization estimates more than 2,000 turtle eggs were eaten or destroyed — by their calculation 12 percent of the total number of eggs laid on the island — despite the group’s prevention efforts.
Now, Bald Head Island has obtained a permit and plans to trap coyotes during the state-set season of Jan. 1 - March 1, 2020.
Because they are a “rabies vector species,” Evin Stanford with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission explained, any coyotes trapped must be euthanized.
As with many beaches along North Carolina’s southeastern coast, Bald Head Island regularly sees nests of Loggerhead and other vulnerable sea turtles.
Losing nests to predators isn’t a new occurrence on the island, but according to the Conservancy’s site, the average egg loss rate is 175 eggs a year, meaning this year’s rate of more than 2,000 is unusually high.
Coyotes, on the other hand, have no natural predators on Bald Head Island, and are a prolific species — litters range from six to 12 pups each.
Stanford said coyotes are a new species to southeastern North Carolina, only migrating into the coastal plains in the last few decades. Bald Head Island officials say the first coyote on the island was only spotted in 2014.
As far as how coyotes got onto a barrier island in the first place, Stanford said they either used a sandbar accessible at low tide, or they may have even swum to the island.
”It’s not really surprising, because they are all up and down our barrier islands,” he said of the coyote population on Bald Head.
Deemed an “invasive species” because of their tendency to consume native species with abandon, Stanford said they can damage ecosystems, which is what Bald Head Island believes is happening in this case.
That leaves officials with a choice: sea turtles or coyotes.
“Looking at this non-indigenous animal, which has arrived on our landscape in the last few decades, and then you look at the sea turtles ... you have this one species that is impacting this other that is periled,” Stanford said.
Bald Head Island released a detailed plan on Tuesday that both outlines what the village plans to do, as well as the reasoning behind the decision.
“After much discussion over the last few months, the Village Council agreed that Bald Head Island should manage its coyote population and has sought the advice of professionals from the Bald Head Island Conservancy, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and the North Carolina Coastal Reserve who have expertise in the area of wildlife management and the preservation of endangered species,” Mayor Andy Sayre said in an email statement released by the village.
“The Village’s plan includes a permit from the Wildlife Resources Commission and will use approved methods in the most humane way possible in order to mitigate the existing threats to native endangered species and the potential risks to others including island residents and their pets.”
After attempting “non-lethal” methods of dealing with the issue, including hardening sea turtle nests against the predators, the Conservancy determined “lethal” methods were the path forward.
According to the village website, the town will pay a licensed trapper to stay on the island for six days and five nights.
NCWRC requires trappers follow state statutes to ensure that animals do not suffer and are humanely trapped and euthanized.
Coyotes, along with foxes, raccoons, and skunks, can carry and transmit the rabies virus, and therefore cannot be relocated due to public health concerns.
Additionally, Stanford noted there are few locations where they could even be taken.
“A lot of people perceive coyotes as being a nuisance animal, and so the other question that you have is, who would welcome these animals?” he said.
State law regulates what traps can be used and how they are used. Traps must be checked daily to ensure an animal does not endure undue exposure to the elements.
Unlike the metal traps with jagged teeth many may imagine, Stanford said the traps approved by the state are humane and are designed to cause minimal injury, if any injury, to anything trapped.
“A lot of people have the perception that the traps break legs or they cause significant damage to the animal, but they don’t,” he said. "The same trapping techniques are used during wildlife research.”
However, some in the community are not convinced.
Emails into the WECT newsroom, as well as posts on social media, indicate some in Brunswick County are concerned the traps will cause coyotes to suffer, and could possibly injure or kill domesticated pets. WECT inquiries of island residents were rebuffed.
Stanford said the traps should not cause harm to anything, and that part of the reason the traps are checked daily is to prevent non-target species from being held too long.