What to know about Galveston’s ‘ghost wolves’ as sightings rise

On a recent frosty and overcast January morning, a pair of wild canines were seen running across a nearly empty stretch at the east end of Galveston beach, right on the water’s edge.

The couple hovered over a few bundled up beach walkers and their dogs before passing under the famous Murdochs souvenir shop. Their trips were filmed by a resident driving on the sea wall and are one of several recent sightings reported by islanders online in social media groups.

These canines, mammals in the dog family known to most residents and officials as coyotes, have made their way into Galveston neighborhoods, where they have been increasingly spotted in backyards and the alleys.

But these are not typical coyotes. Sporting reddish-brown fur and a slender build, they have been genetically linked to the rare DNA of endangered red wolves that haven’t been seen since the 1980s. The discovery, made years ago by a local resident, has spurred a groundbreaking genetic study that aims to determine the prevalence of rare red wolf DNA, or “phantom alleles,” that researchers thought had gone extinct.

The region’s latest cold spell has contributed to the influx of coyote sightings on Galveston beaches, according to Josh Henderson, animal services supervisor for the Galveston Police Department. The beach is an ideal habitat for coyotes which feed on dead washed up fish, dune rats and human waste. When the temperature drops and the beaches empty, it’s time for the coyotes to hunt for food and navigate the island faster and safely instead of having to navigate populated areas and avoid traffic. , people and construction,” Henderson said.

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The same thing happened when the city closed beaches due to the COVID outbreak early in the pandemic in the summer of 2020, said Henderson, who has tracked coyotes in Galveston since 2013.

Galveston Animal Control is working to track coyotes with GPS collars to better understand the animals, from population numbers to territory boundaries to diet.

“It may also offer clues to where the coyotes ultimately spend their time, which could draw them to one neighborhood or another,” Henderson, 39, said.

Henderson said tracking them will also help officials manage the population and, if necessary, better respond to any potential threats.

“If we know we have a problem with a coyote at location X and we know that its territory only extends within those boundaries, that makes it much easier for us to respond to a threat,” Henderson said.

So far, the department has placed GPS collars on two coyotes and hopes to place 10 more, one in each pack from the east end of the island to the west end. The first collar was placed Sept. 20 on a coyote that became trapped in a resident’s yard. Henderson said the months of data the necklace collected helped paint “a remarkably clear picture when it comes to where territorial lines begin and end.”

One of two Galveston coyotes with GPS collars.

One of two Galveston coyotes with GPS collars.

Josh Henderson

The department also tracks animals to obtain data for the red wolf study. Coyotes who are captured for GPS collars will have their measurements taken, including weight, a hair, feces and blood sample, which will be sent to Princeton University and Michigan Technological University for the genetic sequencing.

At $1,800 each, the collars don’t come cheap. Henderson said Princeton promised to send three necklaces and the other seven, along with nine additional game cameras, would be funded with a $15,000 grant. Henderson hopes to have the next batch of collars in about a month and estimates he will launch a trapping campaign in staggered locations across the island in March.

“If we could at least achieve the goal of one coyote in each pack wearing a collar for several months, the program would be absolutely a success and the data we could glean from it would be remarkably valuable,” Henderson said.

The town can’t rely on dumb luck to capture coyotes, so setting up the game cameras and getting the trapping campaign started will be paramount.

But officials say the public must also play their part.

In an effort to further engage residents and end unnecessary calls to the police, the city in May launched a coyote reporting tool for residents to submit their sightings. A total of 325 reports were made through the system in 2021, including 21 so far in 2022, Henderson said.

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Galveston resident Maury Isaacs Horton spotted this coyote on his street in October.

Galveston resident Maury Isaacs Horton spotted this coyote on his street in October.

Maury Isaac Horton

Uptick explained

Maury Isaacs Horton moved to Terramar Beach in June and said she has regularly spotted coyotes since, which led her to set up a game camera outside her home. In October, she spotted a coyote on her street and quickly snapped some pictures.

“I was lucky enough to have my phone in my hand and was heading out the door for a walk on the beach when I saw him coming down our street towards me,” Horton said of the encounter. “I hid behind our parked car and took these photos as he drove past my house. He was gorgeous!”

Henderson confirmed that the city had recently seen an increase in sightings, but offered several explanations for this. Fall is coyote breeding season, so it’s common for others to run around at this time. He credits the city’s coyote reporting system as another reason for the increased attention online, with more residents aware of the animals and eager to document them.

Another factor is the sheer volume of home surveillance and game cameras like Horton picking up animals that owners are usually quick to share online.

While some locals find the animals and their “ghost” genes fascinating, others are visibly worried about the potential dangers they may pose.

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“They’re not scared of people, even getting very close,” one Facebook user commented on the video mentioned above. “There is danger and catastrophe waiting to happen.”

“They were a little too close to me on the beach,” another woman commented.

But when it comes to the dangers they pose, Henderson said locals need not worry. In nearly 10 years of tracking coyotes here, he has never heard of anyone injured by a coyote.

Feral cats and small dogs face real danger. Pet owners are encouraged to keep pets on a short leash and their small animals indoors. Residents who come into close contact with a coyote should ask the animal to leave with a forceful tone.

“The coyotes are more afraid of us than we are of them,” Henderson said. “They would rather have nothing to do with people.”

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Jennifer R. Strohm