WESTERLY — Town officials are looking into the the pros and cons of an organized effort to reduce the population of coyotes by hunting.
Town Manager J. Mark Rooney, in an interview last week, said he planned to ask the town's animal control officer, Art Smith, to speak with officials at the state Department of Environmental Management to obtain permits and to research the cost of hiring professional hunters.
The decision follows a meeting Rooney had late last month with Robert Saglio, a resident who has organized an online alert network through a Facebook group called Westerly Coyote report. The group, which started in October, has 1,080 members. Town Council members Karen Cioffi and Sharon Ahern also attended the meeting, as did Smith.
In October, Saglio and several others attended a council meeting at which an ordinance prohibiting the feeding of wild animals was approved. He spoke in favor of the ordinance but asked for additional measures to deter the animals, whose presence has alarmed a number of residents and visitors in recent years. Saglio and the others described incidents of coyotes behaving aggressively and making off with dogs and cats, or trying to do so.
During the meeting last month, Rooney said that Saglio reported the presence of 8 to 10 coyotes dens. Because of the mild winter, Rooney said he would not be surprised if the number of coyotes increases in Westerly.
Rooney said he planned to discuss the coyote issue publicly with the Town Council soon. The council, he said, would have to sign off on spending town funds to hire hunters. Cioffi told The Sun that Saglio discussed the possibility of members of his group donating money to hire the hunters.
Rooney added that Saglio had requested a public forum meeting to discuss coyotes. But the manager said he believed the issue had been adequately addressed publicly during council meetings.
While he was willing to explore the request for hunting, Rooney noted that DEM experts have previously told town officials that efforts to reduce the size of the local coyote population would likely not be effective for long. One of the experts, he said, reported that "you can shoot them this year but the population will just grow back into the void."
Efforts to reduce the size of the coyote population, whether by the town or other entities, must be lawful, Rooney said. Rhode Island law prohibits the discharge of firearms within 500 feet "of any occupied dwelling house, residence, or other building occupied by human beings, or any barn, stable, or other building used in connection therewith, without the specific permission of the owner or tenant."
Cioffi said she continues to see coyotes roaming in the road outside her East Avenue residence. She praised the town's efforts to educate the public about the presence of coyotes in the community by posting signs throughout the town, and said that Saglio's facebook group was helpful.
"To move forward I'd like see if we can get the permits and perhaps get a hunter to thin out the dens," Cioffi said. "The dens have been identified to some extent. The situation is very concerning."
But Cioffi said she would not support the expenditure of town funds toward the cost of hiring hunters. Instead, she said, members of Saglio's group would have to cover the cost. She also warned against assuming that an organized hunt would eradicate the coyote population.
"We know it's not the be all and end all. It's not going to solve the problem completely," Cioffi said.
Saglio did not respond to a message seeking comment for this article. Ahern could not be reached for comment.