RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
All over America, coyote populations have exploded. The wily Western predators have spread east and can be spotted in New York, Detroit, Atlanta and other cities. Still, little is known about these city coyotes. Researchers here in Los Angeles are aiming to change that. Reporter Jed Kim from member station KPCC begins his story in the wilds of an LA urban park.
JED KIM, BYLINE: Justin Brown is on the hunt for coyotes. Not just any coyote, though. It's got to be from Vista Hermosa National Park.
JUSTIN BROWN: I mean, this is one of the sites I really want a coyote 'cause this is going to be one of the most interesting coyotes I've ever got my hands on.
KIM: Brown is an ecologist with the National Park Service, and Vista Hermosa is a prize because it's right next to downtown LA. You can see sky scrapers through the trees. A coyote from here would give a lot of insight into how the animals live in human territory. How many there are, where they hang out, what they eat - it's all a mystery.
BROWN: Right now, we know nothing about coyotes. We know that there's some around. We have no idea how they're persisting down here.
KIM: Brown sets up a trail camera and buries some bait.
BROWN: Looks good to me.
KIM: Urban coyote tracking began in Chicago under Stan Gehrt, an Ohio State University researcher. He started his project after coyotes made their way in during the '90s.
STAN GEHRT: Out of the blue, these coyotes were showing up in areas where they had never been seen before. And there is a lot concern about - well, does that mean? What should we do about that?
KIM: What Gehrt's learning has refuted a lot of commonly held beliefs about coyotes.
GEHRT: We assumed that coyotes were living in the city because they were eating garbage or pets, and we were wrong.
KIM: Instead of garbage and pets, it was voles and rabbits. It's not clear if the same holds true in LA, though. That's why Brown's doing his work here. So far, he's managed to catch and fit two coyotes with tracking devices - a female at Vista Hermosa and a male in a nearby neighborhood. The GPS data shows the coyotes are spending more than half their time in developed areas. The tracking collars provide great location info, but they only upload sporadically. Also, you can't tell much about behavior. Nothing's better than seeing the coyotes in person.
BROWN: Did I just run that red?
KIM: It's late at night. Brown IS driving around LA, his hand out the window, holding an antenna.
BROWN: When the beep gets the strongest, that tells me whatever direction my antenna's point in - it tells me that's the direction that of the animal.
KIM: He's already learned some things about the animals. For instance, he's witnessed how they melt into the shadows when people are around.
BROWN: I think that's one of the biggest things - is just realizing how often they're running into people, which - from my one night of getting to follow them close, it seemed quite frequently. And they were able to deal with it and go around people without really being much of a conflict.
KIM: It's around midnight when Brown, a photographer and I spot the collared male.
BROWN: Come on, coyote. There you go. Right there in front of us. Both - they're - two of them together.
KIM: Seeing two of them is a bonus since only one is collared. Also, Brown hadn't been sure city living would've allowed them to act communally. Over the next few hours, we see four or five coyotes. It's hard to tell because they look so similar. Still, it's a good night for data.
BROWN: Just watching them the occasions when we get to come out and do this - it's amazing. I mean, I didn't think I would - didn't they'd be able to move the way they're moving through some of these residential areas.
KIM: There's still a lot to learn about urban coyotes here. Eventually, Brown hopes to have colored a dozen. From NPR News, I'm Jed Kim in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.