Coyotes exemplify a fascinating, and controversial, look into human-nature relationships. I have a lot of opinions about coyotes and their treatment by humans, but I’ll try to be objective here. Having grown up in Maine where it’s always open season on coyotes, I regularly saw them strung up in neighbor’s front yards. The common argument is that an increase in the coyote population will decrease the deer population, thus limiting hunters’ ability to successfully get deer. While this argument seems logical by the laws of the food chain, it simply isn’t.
Here’s some science. First, ask yourself this: if you were a solitary coyote (remember, they tend not to hunt in packs like wolves do), what type of deer would you go after? The biggest, strongest, trophy deer? Of course not. Coyotes are good hunters, but they’re not that good on their own and they don’t often go after deer. If they do seek deer, they go after the smaller, weaker, younger deer. More coyotes in an area following this common pattern actually select for a greater presence of trophy deer–the kind of deer, in my experience, hunters like. So that’s a little something to debunk the whole “more coyotes means less deer” argument. The generally negative attitudes towards coyotes exist in my current state of Wyoming as well (why is it that I always live in states that support exterminating coyotes?) Here, it is common in areas with lots of ranches to kill off as many coyotes as possible to reduce their threat to livestock. Again, this appears to be a sound argument: more coyotes means less livestock. However, when a coyote’s pup is killed, it just has more pups. Similarly, if a coyote’s mate is killed, it finds another mate to reproduce with. Randomly killing coyotes has been shown to actually increase the coyote population over time.
While I recognize that coyotes can and do pose a threat to livestock in some areas and may reduce a deer herd in some specific circumstances, considering their biological and ecological roles and realities is key to any management plan. Not to mention simply grasping how interesting they are: for example, Victor H. Cahalane in his book “Mammals of North America,” published in 1947 (which I recently inherited from my outdoor-loving grandfather), describes the many foods that coyotes tend to eat:
“The coyote eats everything that is edible, and numerous other objects. Leather…a lady’s powder puff with the right scented powder…Althought it eats a little of nearly everything, including a great variety of fruit and a little grass, the coyote is usually an almost one hundred per cent carnivore. Throughout the year, rabbits and many rodents make up about half of all the food eaten. Anything it can catch by speed or stealth, from jackrabbits, marmots and prairie dogs to ground squirrels and all varieties of mice, are devoured. It is seldom able to down a healthy adult deer… The coyote goes into the water after fish, crayfish, frogs and tadpoles…Quite frequently it eats porcupines in spite of the quill menace.”
Cahalane also describes coyote’s personality:
“It has been seen playing with a raven, rushing, jumping and rolling over with amusement, and waving its legs in the air while the bird evaded or swooped threateningly. After watching many coyotes, I really believe that they have a sense of humor at times. On one occasion a coyote played with a live field mouse, letting the little animal run toward a waiting raven, then leaped just in time to snatch it from the bird’s talons. Grisly humor this time! When two coyotes meet, they sometimes touch noses, a friendly inquisitive salutation.”