Dennis Johnson was so stunned by what he was hearing over his walkie-talkie that he paused a moment before asking the air traffic controller to repeat the transmission.
He was no stranger to wildlife on the grounds of the Greenville Downtown Airport. In 26 years, he had runoff everything from foxes and raccoons to Canadian geese.
And he’d heard rumors about a new predator prowling the grounds at the Greenville Downtown Airport. But none of that on this late August morning, prepared the facility’s maintenance director for what he was hearing.
“Six or seven coyotes were up on the end of the runway and wouldn’t move,” Johnson said. “They had five airplanes backed up, waiting to take off. The first pilot in line even moved up and revved his engine. But those coyotes didn’t budge.”
Over the last three months, officials at the Greenville Downtown Airport have found themselves dealing with a problem affecting cities and towns across the U.S.
Commercial and residential growth has consumed acre after acre of forests and wildlife habitats. And wildlife, be it whitetail deer, wild turkeys or coyotes, are left with nowhere to go. Problem is, they must go somewhere. And that somewhere has become neighborhoods where wildlands meet the suburbs.
While no attacks on people have been reported in the Upstate, coyote attacks on both humans and pets have increased in other places such as California, where 48 incidents involving children and adults were verified between 1998 and 2003.
Studies show that attacks are typically preceded by a sequence of increasingly bold coyote behaviors,including nighttime attacks on pets, sightings of coyotes inneighborhoods, attacks on pets on leashes, chasing joggers and bicyclists, and finally, mid-day sightings of coyotes in and around children’s play areas.
The day the pack of coyotes appeared on the runway, Johnson knew he had to act fast.
He grabbed a predator gun, which is designed to shoot a cartridge that makes enough racket to frighten off just about anything, and headed up to the runway.
“Fortunately, with those things you can stay back a ways, because they make a lot of noise,” he said.”When I shot it, they scattered, and I’m glad they did. They might look cute and cuddly. But I’ve been told not to ever get too close because they are sly animals. You shouldn’t ever turn your back on them.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it in the 23 years I’ve been here,” airport Executive Director Joe Frasher said. “But they are here, downtown, right in the middle of an urban area.”
So far, the presence of the wily canines has resulted in only one collision. That happened one morning before dawn about three weeks ago when an aircraft hit a coyote, while trying to land. Fortunately, no one on the plane was injured.
The coyote, which weighed an estimated 50 pounds, was knocked clear off the runway and died.
“My guess is their habitat has been destroyed somewhere over on the ICAR site,” Frasher said.
With the assistance of state wildlife officials, the airport has contracted with a registered trapper to help tackle the problem.
So far, the trapper has caught 10 of the non-native wildlife species in spring-loaded foothold traps, now strategically placed up the steep embankment that leads from the woods along Airport Road up to the runway.
Under state law, nuisance wildlife, once trapped, must be put down, said Mike Harrell, a registered trapper who owns Realtech Wildlife in Spartanburg.
Harrell, who has worked across the Upstate, estimates that there are dozens of coyotes in the city alone.
Tower officials at the Greenville Spartanburg International Airport started getting reports of coyotes on their property two years ago, said Rosylin Westin, spokeswoman for the facility.
Immediately, officials sought help from the Department of Natural Resources on how to best
tackle the problem.
“They suggested eliminating access points for the coyotes,” Westin said.
And that’s what happened. Metal bars were installed over pipes that led under runways. Fences were checked regularly to make sure they hadn’t been breached.
“Have we eliminated the coyote problem? No,” Westin said. “Do they still present a challenge? Yes.”
If coyotes are restricting the flow of air traffic, officials at Greenville Spartanburg International
Airport will shoot them as a last resort. That has been the case three times over the last two years.
“They got onto the runway and left us with no choice,” Westin said. “We can’t allow them to run wildon the airfield. It could certainly jeopardize lives.”
Coyotes aren’t at all new to the Upstate.
Though historically found in the western half of the U.S., coyotes are now found throughout North America due to range expansion and translocation by houndsmen groups, state wildlife officials said.
Here in the Upstate, populations were first established by houndsmen in the late 1970s in Pickens and Oconee counties. Coupled with natural migration, coyotes are believed to be in every county in the state.
“What you are seeing now in Greenville is probably a loss of habitat situation,” said Mike Willis, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources. “We do know the coyote population is expanding. And you are probably dealing with a situation where those fields at the airport are full of food.”
Coyotes are typically the most active beginning at twilight, and continuing throughout the night.
They are opportunistic feeders.
While rabbits comprise the majority of their prey, they also dine on rodents, fruits, berries, insects and the occasional cat or small dog.
That tidbit wasn’t what Kay Roper wanted to hear.
Earlier this spring, Roper, who lives off East Parkins Mill Road, learned from a neighbor that coyotes were scavenging the neighborhood, which is less than two miles from where Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research is being built off U.S. 276 on what was 250 acres of undisturbed woodlands.
“If you think about it, it makes perfect sense that they would be coming from over there,” Ropersaid. “But I don’t know that I want them roaming around in my backyard.”
Especially, given the fact that her family’s Cocker Spaniel, Beau, enjoys playing out there in the evenings. Some nights, she says, it’s as if Beau senses an intruder.
So far, Roper says, she hasn’t seen any coyotes.
She has heard them.
“Just the other night, my husband woke up in the middle of the night and said, ‘Do you hear that?'” Roper said. “It is just the weirdest noise. It’s like a high-pitched yipping.”
Ladson Gallivan, who lives not far from Roper on Parkins Lake Road, hasn’t just seen them.
He shot and killed one.
“I was outside spraying for bagworms in the middle of the night,” Gallivan said. “I was on my golfcart, and had the tank on the back. Of course, I had the headlights on, and when I looked up these two little eyes were looking at me.”
Gallivan said he knew immediately it was a coyote.
“It just stared at me, then it started to walk off,” he said.
Gallivan said he buzzed back to his house and grabbed his shotgun, then took off toward the pasture. It was there that he caught sight of the coyote again.
“He was still just walking, and Isaid, ‘Hey buddy,'” Gallivan said.
The coyote weighed about 30 pounds.
Since then, he has seen others.
Week before last, he was cutting grassat about 2 o’clock one afternoon when he stopped to pick up a limb that had fallen from a pear tree.
“I picked it up and walked over to throw it on a brush pile I had made for the rabbits to hide from the coyotes,” he said. “One jumped right up and took off.”
Neighbors along East Parkins Mill Roadshare the details of their sightings.
Several families are missing cats.
Some folks tell of how a youngster was doing homework when he heard something slam against his family’s front door.
When he walked outside, fur was flying.
They believe a coyote had attacked the family cat on the front doorstep.
Risa Collins caught sight of a coyote last spring after she flipped on her outside floodlights to see whather dog was barking about.
“I hit the floodlights and looked out, and it was right there, coming really close to my patio,” said Collins, who also lives off East Parkins Mill Road. “It froze in the light, and then took off.”
And left Collins with an uneasy feeling.
She was already missing three cats.
She doesn’t let her other cats go outside anymore, unattended.
And she worries about her children.