Local Naturalist Studies Coyotes Living Amongst Sunset Reservoir Solar Panels

Coyotes are reclaiming the home that they used to live in.

Indigenous to California, these creatures were found throughout the Bay Area, including in San Francisco, but people began purposefully wiping out coyotes out of fear and hate. In 2002, however, to the surprise of many, a coyote was discovered walking around in the Presidio of San Francisco. One story is that in 2002, a trapper brought coyotes to San Francisco from Mendocino County as an act of rebellion against the 1998 ban on leg-hold traps. Over time, the highly curious, intelligent, and social creatures that they are, have been able to adapt to their urban habitat of San Francisco.

Long-time San Francisco resident, Janet Kessler, is a self-taught naturalist and coyote specialist who has spent nearly 15 years tracking, documenting, and studying coyotes in San Francisco. She distinctly remembers her first time meeting a coyote at Twin Peaks. “We watched each other, with her repeatedly jumping up and doing happy little mid-air twists. There was enthusiasm, inquisitiveness, and awareness beyond what you might expect from a wild animal,” Kessler reflected. This removed and respectful interaction sparked her curiosity and the more she learned about coyotes’ fun personalities, the more passionate and curious she became about studying them. Kessler has eventually become well-known throughout San Francisco as the “Coyote Lady.”

A day in Kessler’s life includes going out into the field to observe coyotes’ interpersonal interactions, personalities, behavioral patterns, family relationships, and their ranging distances for mapping their territories of which, she has determined, there are about 20 in the city. She documents her observations of coyotes’ natural behaviors by taking hundreds of photos, and then writing reports and blog posts that present her findings. Over time, Kessler has been able to tell each coyote apart, create family trees, understand their personalities, and even witness couples pursue polyamorous relationships and undergo “divorce!”

Coyote walking along solar panels. Photo courtesy: Janet Kessler.

Recently, coyotes have been found wandering around the SFPUC’s Sunset Reservoir, home to a solar installation operated by the agency that generates clean electricity for both Hetch Hetchy Power and CleanPowerSF SuperGreen customers. Kessler has been granted access to the reservoir in order to better observe these coyotes and collect coyote DNA samples, or fresh scat, to confirm coyote relationships and dispersal movements within the city. She explains, “The reservoirs are ideal for coyotes: the fences keep dogs and people away from them and that is of prime importance to a coyote. Being in the middle of the panels offers them long views into the distance, so they can easily see anyone coming and have plenty of time to move. Moreover, the sun is absorbed by those panels, and they offer comfortable warmth which all animals love!”

Once she collects the DNA samples, Kessler sends them off to researcher and professor Dr. Benjamin Sacks and two graduate students at UC Davis who study the DNA: it’s become a collaborative effort. Kessler will use the results of this study to confirm her findings and fill in what she may have missed, and to also verify where the coyotes originated. Based on Kessler’s scat collecting to date, Dr. Sacks has determined that the current population of about 80-100 coyotes came from four original founding coyotes.

There is no doubt that coyotes are here to stay in San Francisco. In order for humans and coyotes to coexist and interact in a healthy way, Kessler shares some guidelines for stewardship and coexistence. As much as it is tempting, getting too close and violating boundaries, such as approaching, feeding, or interacting with them, is just as harmful to them as a culture of fear. Engaging with coyotes over time can break down natural safety barriers, causing them to hang around listlessly, approach people, beg, and chase cars. Keeping yourself and your pets away from coyotes is crucial- walking away from them shows them you are not interested, and this is what they want as territorial creatures. Kessler reminds San Francisco residents to “love their wildness at a distance and maybe just out of the corner of your eye.”

Visit Janet Kessler’s blog here: coyoteyipps.com

Coyote with San Francisco cityscape in background. Photo courtesy: Janet Kessler.