May 7, 2009— -- If everything goes according to plan, a Denver suburb will soon have a lot more coyotes running around with pink paint splotches on their fur.
The Greenwood Village Police Department armed its officers with paintball guns earlier this month in hopes of humanely scaring coyotes away from its parks and residential neighborhoods.
The cops began hunting the coyotes because the wily critters have been prowling the town's parks and backyards with increasing frequency.
"The city of Greenwood Village has dealt with coyotes for years," Police Lt. Joe Harvey told ABCNews.com. "It"s never been as bad as it is now."
They've only had one attack on a person, a 14-year-old boy who was jumped by a coyote in a town park last December. The boy instinctively crouched down and threw his arm up in front of his face.
"The coyote bounced off his arm and kind of yelped and ran away," Harvey said, adding that the teen was not injured.
The area's coyotes have becoming increasingly bold in snatching up rabbits as well as pets.
One resident, Harvey said, reported having his shih tzu grabbed by a coyote off the back porch. Police found 30 dog and cat collars in one coyote den alone.
They've also become increasingly drawn to bird feeders and fruit trees, and every encounter makes them less fearful of the people who are inadvertently supplying their food source.
After the attack on the teenager, the city hired someone for about $20,000 to map out dens in the area and shoot to kill if he saw a coyote. The contractor, Harvey said, did kill one coyote in the park where the boy was attacked, but the town was soon met with an outcry from animal rights enthusiasts.
And, he said, there was no way to tell if the dead coyote was the same one that attacked the teen.
So Greenwood Village police borrowed an idea from nearby Lakewood. They bought paintball guns and used paintballs they already had in stock for training purposes in hopes of teaching coyotes to be more fearful of humans. But officers will, he said, still shoot to kill if they feel there's a direct threat.
For the last several days, two officers armed with paintball guns have been walking area parks. They've taken six shots and hit two coyotes, Harvey said.
"In both instances, the coyotes yelped and ran away," he said, adding that the pellets should "sting" the coyotes, but not maim them.
"If the human body can take it, there's no doubt a coyote with a lot of fur can take it," he said.
Experts Help With Hazing, Criticize Lethal Approach
Greenwood Village will send the officer out each morning for two weeks and then assess the situation to see if there's been any improvement. Harvey estimated the department gets between five to 10 calls about coyotes a week.
Officers are tracking two in particular that travel together in one park. Experts believe one, which is thought to be somewhat aggressive, is protecting and hunting for the other, which has a limp.
Wild Earth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group with offices in Denver, sent a team of 70 to 80 volunteers to Greenwood Village in February to help haze humanely once the city announced plans to kill the coyotes.
"We walk the park seven days a week, dawn and dusk to scare away coyotes," wildlife program director Nicole Rosmarino said. "We've been really pressuring the city to step up and do the hazing."
Rosmarino applauded the paint gun tactic but said doing it for two weeks isn't long enough to scare off coyotes because it could take months to change the behavior of a coyote population.
Hazing coyotes is always going to be more effective than killing them, because coyotes will instinctively breed faster if their populations dwindle, said Holly Tarry, Colorado director for the Humane Society of the United States.
"It"s very hard to thin their populations," Tarry said. "Killing coyotes actually makes more coyotes."
Coyote Attacks Dog on Leash and Bites Owner
While the paintballs will serve the cities' purpose of scaring the coyotes, the same goal can often be achieved through hazing as simple as yelling, throwing your arms out to make you look bigger, blowing a whistle, stomping or throwing rocks in their direction.
They are fairly small animals, Tarry said, weighing about 35 pounds, with males maybe a little larger.
Lakewood Police Public Information Officer Steve Davis said their city's officers have been shooting paintballs at coyotes for about a year. They began shooting at coyotes after a woman was bitten on the arm while trying to protect her dog, which had been snatched while on an extended leash.
While they've only hit them a "handful" of times, Davis said, just shooting the pellets at them sends the coyotes a message "that humans were something to fear and run away from."
"We've had fewer problems with them," the officer said. "We certainly don't want to unnecessarily injure the coyotes. A lot of people around here really enjoy the wildlife."
Tarry said she's worked with the state to start its own hazing program and while Colorado does have a large coyote population, the animals are located all over the country. Coyotes will, she said, populate any area that has a food source and are able to adapt to any environment.
She recommended that anyone faced with a coyote in a park or in their own backyard try hazing themselves through yelling or throwing sticks. Seeming meek and fearful will only increase their aggressive tendences, Tarry said, adding that pet owners should keep their animals on a leash and pick them up if a coyote crosses their path.