By Rita Giordano
Mike Gambardello, a construction worker from Pennsauken, has been hunting for 17 of his 25 years. He recalls clearly and with pride taking down his first deer, a four-point buck, in the Pine Barrens at age 15. His father was there to see it.
"It's the biggest high you can ever get in your life," he said.
But in the last several years, Gambardello has become increasingly aware of other hunters in the woods:
"Eight years ago, it was very, very rare," he said. "Now walk down the road, and you see more coyote tracks than deer tracks."
He is convinced he knows how they get there: collusion to cut the deer population.
"I believe the insurance companies and the state are working together on this," Gambardello said.
And he is not alone.
For years, a not-so-small segment of the hunting community has suspected coyotes have been secretly imported to the region by states to reduce their deer herds and/or by insurance firms to cut deer-related accident claims.
Spokesmen for the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife both deny the claim. Apparently it has come up often enough that the New Jersey division has a permanent disclaimer posted on its website.
Representatives of some of the nation's major auto insurance firms say their companies had no hand in bringing in the coyotes.
"This is what you call a rural myth or urban legend," said David Phillips, a spokesman for State Farm, the country's largest vehicle insurer, adding almost wistfully that he had thought this might be the first deer season in nearly 15 years he wouldn't be asked about the coyotes.
Escaped pets Several years ago, Phillips said, he took a call from a Western Pennsylvania man who said someone he knew told him of a coyote with a State Farm ear tag. Phillips asked for more information.
"I never heard from that gentleman again," he said.
Past articles mention coyotes in both states going back to the 1930s and '40s.
Andrew Burnett, a wildlife biological for the State of New Jersey, said coyotes may have migrated from Canada. But, he added, a 1949 Journal of Mammalogy article said it was also likely coyotes were kept as pets and escaped or were released.
Of course, the state and the insurance companies cannot prove they have had no role in the coyotes' proliferation, hunters counter. In any case, the creatures are not leaving anytime soon.
"Once you have coyotes, you will never get rid of them," Burnett said. "They're just too smart. They're really adaptable."
Crossbreeding Coyotes have been sighted in every county in both states. Larger than their Western cousins, Eastern coyotes are believed to have crossbred with wolves along the way.
Game and wildlife officials with the two states do not consider the coyote population to be at problem levels. Travis Lau, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said doe-to-fawn ratios have remained consistent, giving no evidence of coyotes having a significant impact on the deer population.
Some hunters would disagree.
The coyotes "are just killing too many fawns," said Leo Deiter, 61, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Hunters Organization and a believer in rumors that the state in the past traded local turkeys for coyotes, which were released into the wild.
"They've gotten braver, too," said Deiter, a loading-dock worker. "They'll take domestic cats and dogs right out of people's yards."
Next month, his group will hold its ninth annual coyote hunt.
"We try to keep them thinned out," the Perry County resident said.
David Swarter, 44, of Souderton, is a regional coordinator with the Pennsylvania Predator Hunters Association. The coyote population "has just exploded," he said, and the state's denials have not altered his belief that it released coyotes into the wild in the 1930s and '40s.
"They're not going to admit it, and there might not be any documentation," said Swarter, who works in manufacturing.
Coyote hunting and trapping - a pelt can go for about $40 - has increased substantially in the last several years. From 2008 to last year, the number of coyotes reported to New Jersey as trapped or killed nearly doubled. In the 2012-13 hunting season, 299 coyotes were trapped or killed. In Pennsylvania, the increase was almost 70 percent. In 2012, just more than 40,000 were trapped or killed.
That said, coyotes are hard to hunt.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, they'll see you before you see them," Swarter said.
"They'll come up behind you and bark at you," said Mark Siudut, 59, a hunter who works at Bob's Little Sport Shop in Glassboro, chuckling. "It scares the pants off you."
Siudut, retired from the Navy, says he does not believe that the state and insurance companies have been in cahoots on coyotes, but he said 15 percent to 20 percent of his customers do.
Gambardello said he believes the importing is going on still. In October, local hunter Barry Zeldin, 74, went missing. A search of the Pine Barrens that Gambardello took part in yielded nothing.
"He could have been attacked by coyotes," Gambardello said.
That the insurance companies and the government have not copped to coyote trafficking hasn't swayed his belief.
"I don't expect them to admit it," he said. "Why would they? There's no smoking gun. It's just a philosophy. But when enough people believe in the philosophy, it becomes more than that."