Environment & Science

To avoid euthanizing, Irvine is managing problem coyotes with paintball guns

An urban coyote travels along a street near downtown Los Angeles.
An urban coyote travels along a street near downtown Los Angeles.
Stuart Palley for KPCC

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Residents of Irvine may soon begin noticing yellow spots on the coyotes around town. It’s not from any kind of illness, nor is it a new breed of predator. It's paint. 

Officers with the Animal Services Unit of the Irvine Police Department have begun firing paintballs at coyotes they find to be too comfortable around humans. It's part of an ongoing strategy to haze coyotes, training them to avoid areas inhabited by people.  

"They're becoming very comfortable in the populated areas, so this just kind of raises the level of intensity of the hazing to make it a lot more uncomfortable for them," said Lt. John Condon, manager of the Animal Services Unit. 

In recent months, five incidents of attacks on humans in the area have necessitated removal of problem coyotes. The victims, — some of whom were children — received minor injuries from scratches or bites. Wildlife officials said the high number of incidents was abnormal. 

“In 30 years, I’ve never seen that many, one right after the other,” said Lt. Kent Smirl, who works in the Southern Enforcement District of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Smirl said that kind of concentrated aggression typically occurs as a result of feeding, either directly or indirectly by people. He said his agency and the Animal Services Unit have worked to educate residents about how to coexist safely with the wild animals. 

Hazing techniques include making oneself appear larger, flashing lights, making noise and throwing objects towards coyotes to make them less comfortable around humans. Smirl said the use of paintball guns to haze coyotes is new to the region but that his agency supports the tactic. 

"We're fully supportive of it at the agency level. They've done an outstanding job to try to educate their communities, they've been utilizing us. This is the last means to try to save the animals' lives," Smirl said. 

Smirl said that support does not extend to the general public, however, as residents may have not been trained in proper hazing methods. The point may be moot in Irvine — city municipal code restricts residents from firing arms within city limits.

Condon, of the Irvine Animal Services Unit, said the method is attractive, because it is non-lethal.

"The alternative is trapping, and what happens with trapping is once a coyote is trapped, they have to be euthanized. So this allows us to avoid that level of action," said Lt. John Condon, manager of the Animal Services Unit. 

Officers began using the method on Thursday evening, chasing off two coyotes: one of which was in front of a house, another of which was in a park. Condon said the approach seemed to work. One of the coyotes appeared to have been frightened by the noise. The other one was chased off after getting hit.

"They did not like it, to say the least," Condon said.