The group of three women out for a walk in San Francisco’s Presidio veered off the sidewalk and into the street, giving a wide berth to the coyote that stood nearby calmly watching them, which scurried off only after one of the women clapped her hands in its direction.
The encounter wasn't unusual in this wooded San Francisco enclave which is among several forested city neighborhoods with coyote populations.
"Everyday in the park, every day in the city people are seeing coyotes," said Presidio Trust ecologist David Harelson. "We're just here in the environment, doing our thing, and they’re doing their thing."
But come April when the coyote pupping season gets underway across wooded Bay Area parks, the fragile denouement between the critters and the urban world thaws — coyotes have been known to attack, sometimes fatally, domestic dogs who venture too close to their dens.
In the Presidio, park officials have placed more than 30 coyote warning signs around the spots coyotes are known to frequent.
"When the pups are born is really when the parents start to become protective of this area around the den site," said Presidio Trust Wildlife Ecologist Jonathan Young.
Young said although coyotes were once common in San Francisco, it wasn't until the early 2000s they began to repopulate the area. They're now a common sight in San Francisco’s outer edges, adding a wild, untamed character to the narrative of the animal-loving city.
The Presidio Trust is keeping close tabs on its current population of six coyotes — all members of the same family — through extensive tracking with GPS collars affixed when the animals are young. Young said the research has shown the animals are 50 percent more active during the night — but also maintain a presence during the day. In the Presidio coyotes feast on a steady supply of gophers, raccoons and rats.
"Nobody's hunting them here,” Young said. "Nobody's poisoning or trapping them here."
Young said the juvenile coyotes will remain in the park just over a year before they're finally driven out by their parents. He said the tracking has traced the park's turned-out coyotes venturing as far away as San Jose — but usually with dire results.
"All the six pups that we've collared in the last two years have all dispersed," Young said. "All those animals have been hit by cars."
Hostile encounters between coyotes and domestic dogs are somewhat rare, although many San Francisco dog owners who frequent areas like The Presidio, Fort Funston and Stern Grove have tales of them. Presidio resident Kirby Walker recalled an incident at Land's End when a coyote approached her terrier during a walk.
"The coyote was stalking us and I had to pick him up and run," Walker said. "So I take it seriously — and he's a smallish terrier and would look pretty delicious."
Walker said during the Spring she heeds the coyote warning signs and avoids taking her dog on unleashed sojourns through the park.
At Crissy Field where coyotes are known to hunt gophers during the early morning, professional dog walker Susie Garcia said she also avoids taking her charges to the Presidio or other areas where coyotes might be present. She said the network of dog walking groups will spread the word throughout the community of coyote activity.
"They always send out like an APB (all points bulletin),” Garcia said, "'Hey there's been a coyote sighting here.'"
On a recent day, the ecologist Harelson walked along a Presidio road holding up what looked like a curious car antenna attached to a radio that beeped a signal indicating a tagged coyote was close by. As he scanned the field of green shrubbery, the pointy ears of a coyote came into focus. The coyote, which Harelson identified as a 1-year-old female born in the park sat calmly eyeing the encroaching trackers.
"It's like a dog on the couch," Harelson said raising his binoculars. "Just sitting by the window with the sun warming up the body."
The coyote yawned.
After about five minutes she stood up and strolled across the street — looking both ways — scaled a hill past a children's playground before heading to scout out the nearby golf course, a favorite haunt.
"Gorgeous," Harelson whispered, watching as the coyote strolled off as if she owned the joint.