Coyotes... predators and prey
Abstract: With the introduction of the Eastern Coyote (Canis latrans) to Vermont, came a need for not only wildlife professionals and researchers, but the general public as well, to take an objective look at both the problems and merits of this introduction. When doing so, one has to consider several aspects of coyote behavior; such as what it eats, what role it plays in its environment, and how it reacts when threatened. Preconceived ideas about coyote behavior based only on innuendo, imagination, or superstition need to be challenged and tested in order to determine their validity. Available data, including reports of attacks and property damages, to agencies such as the Vermont Agency of natural Resources suggests that coyotes are far less a threat to the public than say domestic pets (Vermont Agency of Natural Resources 1998). In 2004 a United States Postal Service survey reported 3,300 attacks on postal carriers by domestic dogs (USPS 2005). In the same year, statistics show that there were 4.7 million attacks on people nationwide by domestic pets (Timm et al. 2004). By comparison, the State of California in the years covering 1993 to 2003, a 10 year span, reported a total of 67 coyote attacks on humans (Timm et al. 2004). Reported statistics would indicate that the chances of being attacked by a coyote are far less that that of being attacked by a domestic pet. In recent years, as with the Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), and the Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), coyotes have become the target of organized mass hunts. The objective of these types of hunts is simply species eradication. The eradication of a species, any species, for reasons without merit is not only immoral, but from an environmental perspective, an unsound practice at best.
Introduction: The recent migration of the Eastern Coyote (Canis latrans) to Vermont has made a clear impact on Vermont’s social, economical and environmental neighborhood. The first recorded sighting of coyote in this state was in 1948, since that time they have established homes in every part of Vermont (Johnson 1998). As with its close relative the Grey Wolf (Canis lupis), the coyote carries with it a not so popular and much maligned reputation. The question is whether or not this reputation, one of being a savage killer and a major threat to the livelihoods of farmers, ranchers, and hunters is rightly deserved or simply one based on fear and ignorance. It has been observed that extreme differences can exist between what is perceived as a risk and what the real risk is when the actual facts are reached by scientific methods. One graphic example of this phenomenon is the public perception on air travel as compared to that of travel by automobile. While it is perceived that air travel is a greater danger to the individual, the statistical facts prove that automobile travel is by far the higher risk (Enger and Smith 2004). So in all fairness we have to ask ourselves, are coyotes good neighbors or bad? Does the presence of Coyotes pose a real threat to the economic, agricultural and recreational stability of Vermont, or are they in fact an asset to the Vermont ecosystem?
The Eastern Coyote has been described as having an omnivorous, scavenging opportunistic feeding habit (Johnson 1998). While technically categorized as a carnivore, as well as eating meat the coyote has also been observed eating many kinds of fruit (Whitaker 1996). The coyotes live prey includes small mammals like rabbit, mice, and ground squirrels but they will also eat fish, frogs and insects when available (Whitaker 1996). Scavenging on carrion is also a feeding trait of the Coyote, one which proves invaluable when foraging in the winter (Whitaker 1996). While individual animals have been observed to grow in weight as much as fifty five pounds on average the coyote weighs in at around twenty to forty pounds (Whitaker 1996). The actual height of a adult averages from 23 to 26 inches tall and from three feet, five inches to four feet, four inches long (Whitaker 1996). Under normal pack conditions, much like their wolf cousins, only the alpha pair breed (Grady 1994). While the average litter is usually numbers six to seven pups, as many as nineteen in one litter has been observed (Whitaker 1996). On average a packs home range extends to about 6.2 square miles here in Vermont (Grady 1994). Social groups, which are smaller than a pack, tend to have larger home ranges. Solitary animals can range up to 21 square miles while nomads can range up to 85 square miles (Grady 1994). In Vermont the population density has been reported at ten family units per one hundred miles (Chambers 1999). When hunting, the coyote is reported to usually hunt alone but may on occasion team up with one or two others (Whitaker 1996). As for what preys on the coyote, at one time the Mountain Lion (Felis concolor) and Grey wolf (Canis lupis) filled that niche. While Black bear (Ursus americannus) still fulfills that role here in Vermont, humans are by far the main predators of coyote.
In the years since its immigration into Vermont the coyote has proven to be an invaluable addition to the ecosystem. With the passing of the Gray Wolf (Canis lupis) and the Mountain Lion, or Catamount (Felis concolor) from Vermont a very important niche was left open. Large predators are a much needed commodity in the world of nature, a major part of this niche is to eat smaller, weaker prey. When the coyotes filled this aspect of the wolf niche, as well as becoming agents of population control for smaller species, some of which are very prone to rapid population growth if left unchecked, coyotes, due to their propensity for exploiting various feeding opportunities help keep the environment cleaner by the scavenging action of eating carrion. Large predators also prove their value by taking the weak, sick, or injured members of larger species like deer thereby improving the herd quality and reducing competition for browse. Of course it should be kept in mind that the coyote doesn’t fill the wolf niche perfectly, unlike the wolf, coyotes are omnivorous, fruits and vegetables are fair game as well as live prey.
The advantages of having a healthy coyote population are well documented, but what are the disadvantages? When exploring this issue one has to try and distinguish between the real risks as opposed to the perceived ones. Examples of perceived coyote threats are often best illustrated by the exaggerated claims of predation on livestock, game animals, and domestic pets. In 1996 the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted a telephone survey of 1,005 Vermont households regarding property damage by wildlife (Vermont Agency of Natural Resources 1998). Of the 1,005 people interviewed, seven households reported cases of personal property damage by coyotes. In comparison there were 94 reported cases of damage caused by White Tail Deer (Odocoileus virginiannus) , and 80 cases of damage caused by Raccoons (Figure 2) (Procyon lotor) (Vermont Agency of Natural Resources 1998). When you compare the number of reported cases of damage attributed to coyote with the overall population of coyotes estimated state wide, which according to John Hall, a spokesman for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, currently is estimated at about 8000 animals (Allen 2004) the real risk appears to be negligible.
Figure 2. Damage Comparison (Vermont Agency of Natural Resources 1998).
To get an overall idea of the number of coyote attacks on humans, from the year 1993 through the year 2003 the State of California had 67 reported events (Figure 3) (Timm et al. 2004).
Figure 3. Recorded Coyote attacks in California 1993 through 2003 (Timm 2004).
By comparison, in 2004 alone, the United States Postal Office reported 3,300 domestic dog attacks on mail carriers nationwide. In the same year there were 4.7 million reported domestic dog attacks on individuals nationwide (Figure 4) (USPS 2005).
Figure 4. Comparison of domestic dog attacks to coyote attacks (USPS 2005).
In the State of Texas, in 1998 out of 704 cases of animal attacks on humans, 99.3% of the attacks were attributed to dogs and cats (Texas Dept. of Health 1998). The number of reported coyote attacks was zero. As the numbers indicate, by comparison, domestic pets are a much higher concern in regards to attacks than coyotes.
Another example of a perceived risk is one put forth by hunters in regards to the number of White Tail Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) taken yearly by coyotes. If we go back and compare the size of the average coyote with that of an adult deer, which weigh in at 150 to 310 pounds for a male and 90 to 210 for the female (Whitaker 1996), it would appear that while it would be possible to take the weak, sick, injured or very young deer the animal does not have the means to deal with a adult, healthy deer (Johnson 1996). To further emphasize the argument against wide scale predation of deer by the eastern coyote, according to Tom Decker, director of wildlife for the state of Vermont, “the deer numbers have gone up (after) easy winters dramatically, and they’ve gone down (after) harsh winters dramatically, irrespective of coyotes”. Decker went on to say, “I’m not saying coyote are not a factor-they certainly are. But they’re one of several factors” (Allen 2004). For further information I contacted Kim Royer of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department regarding the number of documented attacks by coyotes on humans, domestic pets, and livestock. Ms. Royer, based in Springfield Vermont deals with those species classified as furbearers. Species with this designation are hunted and trapped expressly for their pelts. Coyotes in fact are number in this category. According to Ms. Royer, “over the past few years there have been no reports of attacks by coyotes”. However she did elaborate further by saying that, “while there were no documented reports that didn’t mean none occurred, farmers and ranchers tend to deal with any coyote problems on their own”. Ms. Royer closed with the following information, “in previous years when game wardens did respond to complaints most turned out to have been committed by species other than coyotes, such as coydogs (a coyote and dog hybrid) and feral dogs” (Royer 2004). Regardless there continues to be a push for the elimination of coyotes by some farmers and ranchers. As recently as January 18, 2004, a call for a new bounty to be placed on coyotes has been made. Dairy Farmer Jim Jordan of Morgan Vermont, according to news reports, shot a fifty pound coyote and hung it on a tree on his property (Allen 2004). According to Johnson coyotes killed two calves and two adult cows while calving in the summer of 2003. As a result Johnson is calling for a bounty or reward for killing coyotes in hopes that it would encourage more people to shoot or trap them (Allen 2004).
Should this call be successful, and a bounty is to be placed on coyotes, history has shown that this method of eradication is not only ineffective toward reducing the population but in fact counter productive in that it would actually encourage a rise in the coyote population. As noted before, under normal conditions only an alpha pair of a coyote family will breed. But if the population is severely threatened not only will beta females bear pups, but also due to pack disruption, couples left on their own will begin to breed as well (Grady 1994). Not only is bounty hunting ineffective on a practical level, but it can become a financial drain on state and or federal agencies responsible for paying said bounties (Bolen and Robinson 2003). In the pursuit of bounties there are several methods of species eradication that have been, and still are in use. The method of poisoning is a particularly effective one. For example, a notorious yet highly effective poison that has been used in the past is sodium monofluoracetate, better known as compound 1080. This poison is so lethal that one pound of it can eliminate one million pounds of coyote (Grady 1994). Two problems were cited with the use of poisons, the first being that clear evidence was lacking showing that the poison was effectively controlling population numbers. The second reason was that unintentional targets like badgers (taxidea taxus) were victims of the poison as well (Bolen and Robinson 2003) although Compound 1080 has been found to be less than one tenth as lethal in other species like humans, raptors, bears and rabbits to name a few. Although compound 1080 is water soluble and therefore does not collect in food chains and breaks down in soils and water in a matter of weeks, the effects of sub lethal doses remains largely unknown. Sub lethal doses have caused permanent reproductive damage in laboratory animals (Bolen and Robinson 2003). In 1972 the United States government banned the use of all poisons on public lands in the United States (Grady 1994), although of late the use of poison has been a subject of renewed interest. Other methods used in the capture and killing of coyotes are equally as gruesome, and overall equally as ineffective. Leg hold traps, the Coyote-Getter, or cyanide gun, a device which is partially buried in the ground and armed with a shell casing which fires cyanide into the coyotes mouth and face when it’s disturbed, guns, dogs, helicopters, various forms of “denning”, a method not limited to pouring gasoline into a den and then igniting it, and other methods make up the arsenal of coyote hunters, but still the species has survived (Grady 1994). Currently in Vermont there is no closed hunting season on coyote (Vermont Agency of Natural Resources 2004) and according to statistics listed in the report given at the Third Eastern Wildlife Damage Control Conference the highest annual take of coyote by hunting and trapping in Vermont was 354 animals (Chambers 1999). It has been estimated that as many as 75 percent of all coyotes in a population can be killed annually without causing an overall decline in numbers (Grady 1994).
While the present presidential administration has enacted no policies specific to coyotes, or the more general subject of predators, the Bush administration has proven to be no friend to the environment. One, and perhaps the only bright spot, involving the Whitehouse environmental policies is how they affect the coyote. While the pro-business policies can, and do have many negative impacts on many species, the coyote, with it’s tenacity for survival still persists maintaining its numbers. In short, they are surviving despite the Bush Administrations policies. However, a relatively new development in several states is the formation of contests; coyote hunting competitions. As noted, as a form of limiting the numbers of the coyote, hunting has proven to be ineffective. The purpose of these hunts would seem to be simply the accumulation of trophy kills. In order to stop these organized hunts the State of Vermont now has legislation pending that is designed to ban coyote hunting competitions. Two bills, S.0279; Coyote-Hunting Competitions, sponsored by Representative mark Young and H.0745; Prohibiting coyote-hunting competitions, sponsored by Senators Claire Ayer, John Campbell, Harold Giard and Virginia Lyons are now working their way through the political process (The Vermont 2005-2006 Legislature).
The hunting of predators or “varmints” has blossomed into a nationwide “sport”. The object of the sport isn’t to control the number of members in a species or even to protect endangered game species or livestock. Hunters use a method known as calling. The object of calling is to lure the predator within range, often by mimicking distress calls and to simply enjoy the thrill of killing the animal when it responds. As the magazine presented to the left indicates, this sport has evolved into a source of income for a number of “hunters”. Strategies, hints and tips, and preferred killing methods are all presented for the hunter’s enjoyment. And if one is especially lucky, you might win a desert predator hunt (Figure 5).
So is the coyote a good neighbor to have? The answer can be viewed from several perspectives. From one perspective the answer is yes, the coyote provides an invaluable service to the ecosystem. Through its willingness to scavenge carcasses it becomes natures janitor by taking on the unpleasant, and unpopular task of keeping the environment free of decomposing animals. By its predation on the weaker and smaller game it serves in the function of being natures past control agents by keeping rapidly producing species population numbers at bay. By taking the sick or weaker members of the larger species, like deer, the coyote encourages a healthier herd population.
When viewed from the perspective the coyote being a nuisance species in need of eradication, the real evidence demonstrates that this theory is flawed at best. The risk of having coyotes as neighbors is negligible to non-existent. Not only is this an unwise ecological course to pursue but short of complete genocide of the species it would only lead to a backlash of population growth. An eradication of the species would also once again vacate a niche in nature that very much needs to be filled.
A third perspective is one of resignation. The coyote is a very smart, adaptive and widely dispersed animal. The coyotes answer to programs designed to kill it is to breed like their survival depends on it, which of course it dose. The chances of eradicating the species are poor at best, as well as unwise. Just as coyotes filled the niche left open by the loss of the wolf and cougar, coyotes from neighboring states would soon fill the vacuum. The coyote now occupies every state in the United States with the exception of Hawaii and extends northward into Canada and southward into Mexico (Whitaker 1996). From all accounts the coyote is here to stay. When all is said and done though, facts and figures aside we have to ask ourselves, do we as a species have the moral and ethical right to eradicate another species simply because it may have a perceived impact on our economical and recreational pursuits? How many species can we eliminate until we cross that unseen threshold of no return and push our environment to a breaking point of crisis? Hopefully we’ll be smart enough, and compassionate enough not to find out.
In short the coyote plays a vital role in the Vermont ecosystem, and despite the minimal risk to livestock and recreation they are a much needed and welcomed addition to the neighborhood.
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