Since writing the rattlesnake post, my love for the unloved has been sharply rekindled. My fascination with animals carrying bad reputations has been with me ever since my first stint as a naturalist at a state park on the East Coast. Methinks I’ll have myself a little blog miniseries here about the other members of the Bad Rap Crew.
Today we’ll start with coyotes.
Working in the steppe of the Western US in an interpretive role, it’s impossible to avoid the negativity surrounding this animal, so I’ve done my best to present the real science behind the coyote controversy and leave my feelings out of it (as much as I can, anyway). Coyotes have been the target of hate and misunderstanding pretty much since settlers landed on this continent’s shores. I hope this article will illuminate the truth behind the coyote controversy.
Many First Nations knew the coyote as a Trickster figure, capable of supernatural powers, immortality, and continually fooling others and even himself. Coyote was a respected Grandfather, a keeper of knowledge and a figure that guided humans towards growth through their own trials and tribulations. Trickster characters are complex, dynamic, and impossible to pin down. True to his Trickster name, the “song dog” has indeed foiled human attempts at extermination; it is clear that Coyote is as complex and hard to pin down as his mythological counterpart.
The North American Coyote (Canis latrans) is one of eight members of the Canidae family, which also includes wolves, foxes, and domestic dogs. Coyotes are smaller and slimmer than wolves, weighing on average less than 50 pounds. The Michigan DNR points out that, “The size and weight of coyotes are commonly overestimated, because their long fur masks a bone structure that is slighter than that of most domestic dogs.”
(Coyote on left, Gray Wolf on right.)
Coyotes will eat pretty much anything: invertebrates, small mammals, songbirds, carrion, vegetable matter, reptiles, amphibians, leftovers in a garbage bin, etc. A coyote’s preferred habitat is open but with some cover, like grasslands and steppe, but they’ll move into new territories with the main exception of thick forest. That being said, they’re learning to live in urban settings and the vast logging of North American forests is opening up even more habitat for them.
Coyotes are intelligent, clever, and curious. They are a social, vocal species, communicating with each other through a language of yips, howls, and barks. Most coyotes live in packs, led by an alpha pair, but loners exist. Davidson College has a great article on coyote social behavior if you’re interested in more; its a complex and fascinating topic.
So what’s the big deal with this wild canid? Well, if you live on the East Coast, you may not have any idea. Anywhere west of the Mississippi, however, the easiest way to start a fight with someone (unless he’s wearing Birkenstocks or appears to be outdoors for fun rather than for income) is to mention how great coyotes are. In her book God’s Dog: The North American Coyote, Hope Ryden writes, “It is impossible to exaggerate the intensity of loathing a coyote engenders in some westerners.” The reason is that, while most of the West is unsuitable for large-scale agriculture, it seems to favor the raising of livestock. Raising livestock and farming have been an essential part of the Western lifestyle ever since Europeans started moving in that direction from the Eastern seaboard. Ranchers have always taken a serious issue with coyotes, claiming that the canids kill significant percentages of their livestock each year, sheep in particular.
In response, community and government efforts across the country have ensured that each year, nearly half a million coyotes are purposely killed. Canada has responded in the same way, but the facts suggest that, while it’s true coyotes occasionally hunt livestock, North American governments may be icing a bruise with a glacier. Trevor Herriot, at Trevor Herriot’s Grass Notes, points out a startling disproportion of funds: A coyote bounty offered by Saskatchewan to hunters and farmers has resulted in more than 71,000 of the animals being killed, with the province offering $20 per coyote. That works out to about $1.5 million. The cost of damages purportedly caused by coyotes? “Thousands” of dollars. So Saskatchewan spent more than a million dollars paying bounties on animals that contributed to thousands of dollars of damage.
It’s a similar story in the US. At least 90,000 coyotes per year are killed by the government alone (USDA “Wildlife Services”) at the expense of the taxpayer. BigWildlife.org reports thus: “Most taxpayers have no idea a significant portion of the federal wildlife management budget – about $100 million each year – is devoted to exterminating wildlife. The agency [spends] far more to kill carnivores than the actual damage the animals cause. It costs over a $100 for each animal killed (sometimes this price can be up to $2,000) while damages incurred by the animal average $22.50. Lethal control is far more expensive and inhumane than non-lethal alternatives.”
“Lethal control” methods include leg traps, poisoning, going into dens and killing pups, shooting from helicopter, and “calling,” which is bating a coyote by making a noise like a wounded animal. It’s not a humane way to go: leg traps crush bones but don’t often kill, and Wildlife Services isn’t exactly handing out Percocet. Poisons kill the target animal, but also end up killing whatever scavenges that animal (which are sometimes protected species, like eagles).
And to what end? None, it would appear.
Kim Murray Berger, PhD, undertook an investigation into the US sheep business and found that sheep herding has withered by 85% since the 1940s. Many sheepmen say a large part of that is due to coyotes, but Berger found otherwise. She found that the high price of feeding the animals, low wages, lamb prices, and even the age of the rancher are more prevalent factors in the crashing sheepherding business than predator kills.
An article written by William Stolzenburg for Conservation Magazine goes on to say, “…federal agents have been trying to please the complainers by trapping, gassing, poisoning, shooting, and snaring coyotes by the millions with an army and arsenal costing US$1.6 billion over the last sixty years. More recently, they’ve also been attempting to sterilize, scare, and otherwise trick the trickster away from the gasping patient that is the U.S. sheep industry.
Fourteen years of radio tracking and DNA testing at [the University of California’s Hopland Research and Extension Center] confirmed what the wisest trapper knows by experience—that practically every sheep killed by a coyote is killed by an alpha coyote. Alpha coyotes are the savviest and most suspicious of the clan and hence the hardest to catch. The Hopland researchers found that randomly slaughtering a bunch of coyotes to protect a flock of sheep was as effective as killing no coyotes at all. They found that the most promising strategy to save sheep lay not in wasting the countryside of coyotes and other innocent bystanders but in understanding the complex coyote society.”
Researchers Dr. Robert Crabtree and Jennifer Sheldon conducted a study (as reported by Audubon Magazine here) in Yellowstone National Park on the pressure of predation (by wolves) or trapping (by humans) on coyotes. They discovered that under this pressure, more coyote pups survived to adulthood, potentially because of better food availability. Adults will also move dens under the cover of night if threatened. “The more coyotes are attacked by humans, the more they become entrenched,” Crabtree says. “It is easy to view nature as strictly linear — coyotes kill sheep, so we kill coyotes — but the truth is that nature is extraordinarily dynamic. If we simply stopped killing coyotes, it might actually reduce the coyote population and decrease the kills of sheep.”
To find more information about why extermination attempts might produce the opposite result, I contacted Geri Vistein, a conservation biologist working with Project Coyote. She explained that coyotes have an extraordinarily complex social structure. “Family is everything,” Geri said, explaining that removing a pack member often sends the pack into anarchy. “Europeans have kept this species in chaos since we arrived here,” she said, pointing out that we have little knowledge of how coyotes in a stable environment would really behave, because we keep creating unstable environments for them. Geri relayed an interesting story to me about a population of suburban coyotes living on the outskirts of a city. There were reports that one or several of the coyotes may have picked up rabies, and so Wildlife Services responded, but ended up taking the life of an alpha female rather than finding the purported victim of rabies. Her pack – which was left to care for her brand-new pups and had, prior to the incident, been quite reclusive – went into a frenzy, becoming aggressive towards humans. Geri insists that coyote social structure is a delicate and complex organism. When humans disturb it by removing a member – especially an alpha – the rest of the pack does not simply move on. There is a strong reaction, and that, Geri says, contributes to more erratic behavior and more breeding. “In the wild, females don’t give birth until they’re around four years old, and it happens once a year. In chaos, they’re giving birth at a much younger age and may have multiple litters.” In a balanced ecosystem without extermination attempts, wolves, bears, and cougars will naturally keep coyote populations in check: in 4 years, the Yellowstone wolf population reduced the coyote population by 30%. Coyotes also will not have as many pups if left to their own devices.
So if coyote extermination actually encourages coyotes to produce more pups, why is the government still dumping millions of dollars into killing them?
The answer, it appears, is institutionalization. The government has been doing it for so long, it’s just part of status quo. It’s good to remember that historically, the government was much more accessible to the average Joe, and most average Joes in the West were farming or ranching. Often, it’s easier to place blame on a predator than acknowledge the shortcomings in your production practices. People are also far less likely to blame a government that they themselves support. Coyote extermination has been happening since the late 1800s, and, Geri says, “Change has to come from below; it won’t come from above.” She says many ranchers these days are opening their eyes and growing tired of the endless killing: a new “Predator Friendly” promise connects farmers that use preemptive methods in protecting their herds from predators, rather than removing predators altogether. She also reiterates that education about carnivores is paramount to communities coming together to end the senseless campaign against coyotes.
So the next question is, how prevalent are the preemptive methods in farming? Can the sheep give birth in a protected environment? Have guardian animals, like dogs and llamas, been utilized? Is dead livestock disposed of properly? Geri says that being careless with deceased farm animals not only attracts predators, but “gives them a taste for livestock.” Coyotes are caught scavenging livestock, but they aren’t always the culprit of the killing. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food & Rural Affairs states that differentiating a coyote kill from a dog kill “can be especially difficult for inexperienced sheep producers,” but offers an extensive list of clues, including whether or not the lamb’s lung tissue is squishy. Obviously, time, money, manpower, and mentality come into play with all of these measures, but that’s part of finding a solution.
As it turns out, ranchers aren’t the only ones with coyotes in the crosshairs. Coyote calling contests are events in which contestants compete for prizes to see who can kill the most coyotes in a specified period of time. They’re now found all over the country and, because coyotes are unprotected, the killing sprees can take tens of thousands of the canids. The Humane Society reports that contestants often pair up into teams, with one hunter calling the coyote in and the other taking the shot. The hunters win prizes, make money, and are often regaled as celebrities.
41 dead coyotes, displayed at an outfitter in New Hampshire. They offer packages where hunters may roost in a heated blind over “active bait,” which I assume to mean a tethered, live animal. Which, honestly, doesn’t really sound like “hunting” to me.
Then there’s a thing call penning, and here’s where my rational, unbiased approach ends. Coyote (and fox) penning involves trapping the live canids, shipping them, and releasing them into fenced areas where groups of domestic dogs can chase them down and tear them to shreds. It’s organized slaughter of the most horrific kind, and it’s heartbreaking that many states have a long history of allowing this behavior. (Check out Project Coyote for more information or how you can get involved to end this atrocious practice. FYI – thanks in part to the efforts of this great organization, penning is being made illegal in states across the US.)
For me, this photo is like watching a family dog getting ripped apart by rabid wolves. And we are the evolved ones?
The fear factor in this country is also alive and well when it comes to human-coyote interactions; here’s an example from the Statewide Integrated Pest Management System, University of California, Agriculture & Natural Resources department. After mentioning how coyotes have become habituated to living around humans, feeding on garbage and out of gardens, they make this statement (a direct copy and paste): “They will stalk and even attack children or adults, or attack pets being walked on a leash by their owners. More than 160 such attacks have occurred in California since the 1970s…While only one attack has been fatal (1981), a number of attacks have resulted in serious injuries.”
Now, folks, I’m bad at math. I mean, bad. I had to cheat on my final exam in college to pass the only required math class. (In my defense it was a chaos & fractals class, but the point stands.) But even I can handle 160 attacks divided by approximately 40 years: 4 per year. Despite there only being four attacks per year and limited fatalities, the page insists that the coyotes “will stalk and attack.”
Which means, my dear readers, that you, your child, and your fluffy little shitzu are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be attacked by a coyote. You’re certainly far more likely to be bitten by a domestic dog: 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs in the US every year. In this Huffington Post article, Marc Bekoff, PhD, reports that it’s difficult to identify a coyote attack because people often conflate the words “aggressive,” “assertive,” “bold,” “curious,” and “investigating,” which means that non-aggressive behavior can and is often incorrectly interpreted as aggressive behavior.
And I have some questions about coyote attacks. Are the people carrying food or tossing food to the canids? Are they walking chihuahuas or rottweilers? Are the attacked children being encouraged to feed the coyotes by photographing parents before the attack? (Oh, you bet your behind it happens.)
Don’t misinterpret me; I’m certainly not saying coyotes aren’t dangerous. I’m just saying their real danger is intentionally overstated. Should you leave your two year old wandering your unfenced acreage alone, or let your housecat run wild in the streets? No, don’t be foolish. Even a loose domestic dog can take a cat or hurt a child.
What we have is nearly an entire society convinced that coyotes are livestock-killing, pet-attacking vermin, and that it’s acceptable – no, preferable – to commit enormous resources to exterminating them. And what the science tells us, of course, is that they’re an important part of ecosystem balance, that extermination is actually not working, and that the methods employed damage other wildlife. Coyotes are not villains: they kill to feed themselves and their pups. (Not so long ago, we did the same thing; now we kill for fun.) They keep populations of rodents – and often even other animals, like Canada geese – in check. They are intelligent creatures worthy of respect, and their social structures are remarkably like ours.
I’m not saying every single coyote in North America should be floating around in a little federally protected bubble. It’s true that some coyotes can become habituated to our ever-expanding lifestyle, become aggressive, and pose threats to livestock, pets, and humans. However, there is absolutely no need for half a million dead coyotes each year: it’s a long outdated mentality with no research behind it, the methods can be downright torture, and it’s not working. Regulating hunting to ensure that inhumane methods are no longer used is a step in the right direction. Regulated hunting can also curb the senseless numbers of coyotes being killed each year, and hold irresponsible hunters accountable. As it is, coyotes are completely vulnerable.
The answer is not mass killing, but learning to adapt to them as much as they are learning to adapt to us. Sustainably speaking, we can’t keep taking away top predators. It has ripple effects all the way down the line that absolutely affect us and our own food production. It’s also just senseless; if, in truth, the coyotes are not really posing a serious threat, we should be evolved enough to appreciate them as living beings and allow them their space.
What needs to happen is greater collaboration between the government, real science, and those in the livestock and agriculture industry. Regardless of whether they are farm-based, communities need to come together to educate and stand up for this species. I am certainly not standing on my progressive soapbox to say, “Ranchers, you suck. Coyotes rule!”, because I understand the demands that the livestock/agriculture business puts on its producers. That being said, I do believe that misinformation, gross overindulgence by North American governments, financial limitations, and/or a disinterest in the truth of the issue by many ranchers has turned this situation into an example of widespread human cruelty and waste. Coyotes, like most other vilified animals, are not the ones to blame. There’s only one predator that’s to blame here, and he’s the only one capable of carrying a rifle in a helicopter.
Here’s what we as humans have done: we’ve entered a place and torn down the trees, which made way for the coyote. We set up homes and farms, and systematically wiped out big predators, which made way for the coyote. Then we got mad because the coyote hangs around. So we try to kill the coyote, which makes the coyote more likely to eat our pets and livestock. So we get mad about that too.
I think humans have a really hard time with the idea that we are, in fact, still a part of the food chain. Predators don’t see us as some magical species that put some astronauts on a distant celestial body or that churns out great literature. For bears, wolves, cougars, and sometimes even coyotes, we are food. And that’s natural. My time spent in Africa reminded me of this very fact, where lions, leopards and hyenas will gladly eat you. In North America we forget that we were ever a part of the food chain, and being reminded scares people into irrationality. We have also developed a society where producers of our most basic necessities – farmers and ranchers – are underpaid and under-supported. What support the government does give is in the form of unsustainable practices.
Humans vilify any animal that behaves as we do: with intelligence, discernment, problem-solving skills, and an ability to adapt. During our conversation, Geri Vistein suggested that instead of hating the animals that have managed to survive alongside our shockingly unsustainable human lifestyles, we should be impressed and give these species respect. We are in the same carnivorous, predatory family as coyotes, and we are all heading in the same direction. We need to reexamine how we perceive predators to ensure our own survival on this planet.
These survivalist species are typically members of the Bad Rap Crew, and my hope is that you’ve learned something from this article. I hope your perspective is a little wider now. I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which is relevant to the controversy over our little wild dog, the North American Coyote. Thanks for reading.
“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”
When I see a coyote, or a wolf, or a fox, it’s like seeing my dog’s cousin. And if my dog is family, then his cousin is family too. – t R N
Project Coyote works to break down anti-predator legislation, ban fox and coyote penning, and provide education about coyotes. Support them, they’re awesome!
“Us or Them,” a great article in Conservation Magazine that discusses how outdated politics trump ecology in predator management.
The Yellowstone Ecological Research Center performs a lot of studies on wolves and coyotes. Click on Publications to learn more.
A great article from Audubon Magazine about coyotes, by Mark Finkel.
National Park Service’s page on the Yellowstone wolves and coyotes.
Wolves are feeling the pressure too. As this Oregon newspaper reports, Wildlife Services is targeting more wolves by shooting from helicopter or poisoning dens of pups.