The con begins long after nightfall, with an unearthly cry that echoes across the empty expanse of frozen marshland.

Josh Anthony, 38, sits in the shadow of reedy cattails on the far reaches of the west metro outside Montrose, dressed in winter camouflage and waiting for his prey to make a fatal mistake. An electronic device propped on the snow some 30 yards away wails like a rabbit in peril, a siren song for any hungry coyotes lurking nearby.

Hunters like Anthony, of Watertown, say there's no doubt that more coyotes are moving through the open fields and farms on the fringe of the Twin Cities, driving more people to brave winter nights and try to outwit them when their fur is prime.

That's no easy task given the iconic cunning of the hunters' prey — an animal that has learned to live and thrive, often unseen, by largely avoiding humans throughout the exurbs, the suburbs and more recently the concrete world of the urban core. But with their proliferation in the Twin Cities and metropolitan centers across the country comes rising fears about human conflict, pet attacks and a debate over how to coexist with the remarkably adaptable carnivore next door. Revere or revile them, coyotes are king in the urban turf war.

They have become regular stars of neighborhood social media groups, where pleas for tolerance clash with calls for their death or removal.

"The fact they're moving into cities is an example of how they've won," said Stan Gehrt, an Ohio State University wildlife ecologist who has studied coyotes in Chicago since 2000. "They've taken their number one predator, which is us, and actually chosen to live right in our backyards."

After more than a decade hunting coyotes, Anthony has trained his eyes to sleuth out the signs these urban ghosts leave behind, often spotting tracks as he drives through Carver County.

On this cloudy January night, paw prints halted his footsteps in an open field, where he pointed to soft grooves bruising the snow.

"They're everywhere," he said. "People just don't realize that."

Street smarts

Coyotes' unflagging adaptability never ceases to surprise even the scientists who study them.

Wildlife experts partly credit the predator's enormous success in recent decades to its ability to exploit diverse landscapes.

"I've raised several wolves, foxes and coyotes," said Nancy Gibson, co-founder of the International Wolf Center in Ely. "I will tell you flat out, the coyote's the smartest one."

Their success has created an urban dilemma playing out from coast to coast as they paw around Los Angeles, New York City's Central Park and, recently, a Nashville convention center bathroom.

A growing number of cities, including Denver and some Twin Cities suburbs, are teaching residents to haze coyotes — a tactic to reinforce their natural fear of humans by scaring them with shouting, clapping or using noisemakers like air horns.

That's the approach advised by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as populations increase in the Twin Cities metro area. The DNR does not tally exact coyote totals, just the number that are hunted or trapped in the state each year, which ranges from 30,000 to more than 60,000.

The shy scavengers are well-suited for urban life. Opportunists to the bone, coyotes look for the easiest meal, DNR officials said. Rabbits, small rodents, deer, fruit and garbage all fit the bill in a cityscape buffet.

Not much is known about the lives of Twin Cities coyotes — not their population size, where they are living, what precisely they're eating, what diseases they may carry or how they're dying.

But University of Minnesota researchers want to find out. A team is proposing to put GPS collars on coyotes as well as foxes in the metro area, following the lead of the Urban Coyote Research Project, a similar effort in Chicago.

"The purpose of our project is to really dispel some of the unknowns," said James Forester, a wildlife biologist and associate professor at the U. Such findings, he said, could in turn counter some of the "negative stigma" that coyotes battle.

Conflicts rare

Scientists, wildlife officials and local animal control workers say coyote attacks on pets are rare. And human attacks, they say, are even rarer.

But conflicts do happen.

Bloomington weathered a string of reported attacks on small dogs several years ago and now tracks coyote incidents on an interactive map on the city's website.

"You can no longer just let your small dog out in the backyard and not worry about something happening to it," said Deputy Police Chief Mike Hartley. "It is a reality."

In Blaine, Jennifer Lungstrom was fixing breakfast this month when she saw a coyote out her window and flew to the door, worried about the family dog outside. She said Jobi, a 7-year-old Australian shepherd and border collie mix, had bite wounds on three legs that required emergency vet care.

A St. Paul police officer fired his weapon at a coyote fixated on a dog walker near Hidden Falls Regional Park in December 2017.

Simple steps like securing your garbage, keeping pet food indoors and scaring brazen animals with hazing can go a long way toward avoiding conflicts, wildlife officials said.

Coyotes can be shot or trapped at any time in Minnesota without a license or permit. In Wisconsin, coyotes can be hunted year-round with the right license, while the trapping season is restricted.

But weekend tournaments where participants with the most coyote kills win prizes or cash often spark outrage, though they're allowed in Minnesota and nearly every other state.

Humbling to hunt

Groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the national conservation nonprofit Project Coyote condemn "coyote killing contests" as cruel and argue such killings could actually be driving up coyote populations. They contend that killing coyotes disrupts the stable breeding structure within a pack, making them reproduce even more.

"Coyotes don't need management," said Katie Stennes of Project Coyote. "They self-regulate their population based on food and habitat."

At the West Metro Coyote Tournament in Watertown last weekend, organizers said they strive to run an ethical event.

The contest is "calling only," meaning participants use sounds mimicking other coyotes or prey to get the predators to approach.

Organizers prohibit participants from trapping coyotes or chasing them down with snowmobiles or dogs.

Teams can shoot seven coyotes, tops, and typically sell the fur to a buyer at weigh-in time.

Last year's winners shot three; this year's winner, five. Many come back empty-handed.

"They are the most humbling animal to hunt," said Todd Stein, 39, of Waverly, one of the event organizers.

It's a reality that Anthony, who won this year's contest, knows all too well.

Three days after the tournament wrapped, Anthony and Stein pulled on their camo and waited for the full moon to rise. They studied the wind direction and sat in silence under the cover of carefully picked thickets and cattails, testing various electronic calls.

The pair tried several spots, carrying their rifles to a marsh, a farm field, a frozen pond. They spotted plenty of tracks but no coyotes.

"They outsmarted us, which happens," said Stein, crunching through snow back to the truck.

"A lot," Anthony said.

"A lot," Stein agreed.

But just after midnight, as the hunters peered through the darkness, a sound carried on the wind.

Soon howling filled the air, defiant cries from a pack of coyotes hidden somewhere in the night.

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751