October 28, 2020

Cunning coyotes: Tireless tricksters and protean predators

In Maine, coyotes can be snared – a horrifically slow death follows – and in Utah, there’s a bounty on coyotes despite their being the Olympic mascot. Snaring is an incredibly inhumane technique and ethically repugnant. In my home state of Colorado, the Wildlife Commission has created a new opportunity for big game hunters to kill coyotes while they’re hunting any big game species, without the small game license that’s usually required. It’s not surprising that the Colorado Mule Deer Association supports this move, because it believes that reducing coyote numbers will reduce predation. Once again, coyotes face additional exploitation by humans.

“Old man coyote” is an amazing being. Loved or hated and feared by many, coyotes have defied virtually all attempts to control their cunning ways. William Bright, in his superb collection of stories, “A Coyote Reader,” notes: “Coyote is the trickster par excellence for the largest number of American Indian cultures.”

Native peoples have portrayed coyotes as sly tricksters, thieves, gluttons, outlaws and spoilers, because of their uncanny ability to survive and reproduce successfully in a wide variety of habitats (including Boulder and other cities) and under harsh conditions. They not only survive their encounters with other non-human predators (though they’re losing out to wolves in Yellowstone National Park and are being forced to leave), but also with humans who attempt to control them using incredibly brutal methods, and who also hold well-organized community hunts in which the person who kills the most coyotes wins a trophy. Often these mass killings are considered to be wholesome family outings.

The federal Wildlife Services program (formerly called Animal Damage Control) slaughters tens of thousands of coyotes each year (about 86,000 in 1999, 10 percent more than in the previous year despite claims that the program is switching to nonlethal techniques) because coyotes supposedly are rampant predators on livestock. Livestock protection programs cost taxpayers about $10 million to $11 million annually. In Colorado more than 90 percent of WS money ($1.1 million) is spent on lethal control of native wildlife.

Federal extermination efforts have been conducted since 1885, and during the past 50 years about 3.5 million coyotes have been killed. Killing methods trapping (28 percent), poisoning (21 percent), shooting from airplanes (33 percent), and snaring and other procedures (18 percent) are extremely inhumane and indiscriminate and other predators, domestic dogs, and endangered species also fall victim. In Colorado, during the 1999-2000 harvest season, about 26,000 coyotes were killed by private hunters.

Aerial gunners killed almost 31,000 coyotes in 1999 (along with 17 ravens, 180 red foxes and 390 bobcats). According to the Boulder-based conservation organization Sinapu, there have been 18 crashes involving planes used in aerial gunning since 1989, resulting in seven deaths and 21 injuries. The cost of aerial gunning to taxpayers ranges from $180 to $800 per animal. This comes to about $5.7 million spent on aerial gunning annually. Often tens of thousands of dollars are squandered to capture a single coyote who might be responsible for a few hundred dollars of livestock damage, or not blamable at all. A study done at Utah State University that involved gunning down coyotes from helicopters showed this horrific practice to be ineffective. In another study done at Utah State, coyotes, some of whom were seriously injured, were kept in leghold traps for long periods of time to determine the effects of tranquilizers to keep them calm when they were in pain.

Wanton killing doesn’t work, because little attention is paid to the versatile behavior of these adaptable predators. And disease and unsanitary conditions frequently cause more livestock death than do coyotes or other predators. Only rarely is the “problem” coyote caught or killed, and when coyotes are killed, others take their place. There’s even evidence that in areas where coyotes are killed, birth rates and litter size increase, the result of which is the maintenance or increase in coyote numbers.

I’ve studied coyotes for more than 25 years, and paralleling research performed by my colleagues, have discovered that talking about “the” coyote is misleading. The moment one begins making rampant generalizations, he or she is proven wrong. For example, in some areas coyotes live alone, in other locations they live with mates, while in others they live in groups that resemble wolf packs. In these packs there are “aunts” and “uncles” who help to raise youngsters. And coyotes are sometimes territorial and sometimes not. In a nutshell, coyotes are the quintessential opportunists, who defy profiling as individuals.

Coyotes are also a very important part of the ecological web in various communities because they help to regulate species at different trophic levels. Kevin Crooks and Michael Soule studied the complex interrelationships among coyotes, other predators such as domestic cats, opossum, and raccoons, and scrub birds including California quail, greater roadrunners, and cactus wrens living near San Diego. Crooks and Soule found that scrub bird diversity was higher in areas where coyotes were either present or more abundant. Domestic cats, opossum and raccoons avoided areas where coyotes were most active (coyotes often kill domestic cats where they co-habit). This research is an excellent example of the importance of long-term projects that investigate complex webs of nature that aren’t obvious at first glance.

Unlike wild predators, domestic cats are recreational hunters; they continue to kill birds even when bird populations are low. Crooks and Soule found that 84 percent of outdoor cats brought back kills to their homes. Cat owners reported that each outdoor cat that hunted returned on average 24 rodents, 15 birds and 17 lizards to the residence each year, a large number of victims. The level of bird predation was unsustainable, and least 75 local extinctions have occurred in these areas over the past century.

An extraordinary amount of time, energy and money has gone into coyote control. But it hasn’t worked; if it had, coyotes would be controlled and the controllers could move on to other more economically worthwhile activities. I expect that if any of us were as unsuccessful and wasteful in our jobs as WS animal controllers have been in theirs, we’d be looking for employment.

Let’s appreciate coyotes for the amazing beings they are. They offer valuable lessons in survival. Though coyotes try our patience, they’re a model animal for learning about adaptability and success by nonhuman individuals striving to make it in a human-dominated world. Coyotes, like Proteus the Greek, who could change his form at will and avoid capture, are truly “protean predators.” They’re a success story, perhaps hapless victims of their own success.

Coyotes: love them and leave them be.

Marc Bekoff teaches biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He has studied coyotes and other animals for more than 30 years. His book, “Coyotes: Biology, behavior, and management,” has recently been reprinted. His and Jane Goodall’s Web site is www.ethologicalethics.org.

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