February 21, 2012
Coyotes Under Fire, Page 2: Ecology Folly
Killing coyotes can lead to an increase in their numbers
by Karen E. Lange
Across much of the country, the coyote is a scapegoat—the only good coyote is a dead one. Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote, calls the species “the most persecuted animal in North America” and estimates a half million are shot, snared, trapped, or poisoned each year in the U.S. by Wildlife Services agents, ranchers, and others.
The killing campaign started in the 1800s, when Western ranchers exterminated large native carnivores to create predator-free grazing land for cattle and sheep. They killed bears, mountain lions, wolves—and coyotes, North America’s wild dog, resilient and adaptable predators who leap into the air, legs pulled up and feet neatly curled into their bodies, and land unerringly on their prey.
Eighty-one years ago, Congress passed the Animal Damage Control Act, giving the government broad authority to kill wild animals deemed a threat to agriculture. One favored method: carcasses laced with strychnine. Bounties were offered for dead predators. It used to be that agents would string up dead coyotes on fence posts and hang the ears from rings on their pickups’ gun racks. The ears helped prove their kills so they could collect their money. Around 1980, Shaddox remembers, an order came for Wildlife Services agents to stop doing this—it was bad for the agency’s image. So, nowadays the corpses are generally piled in a heap on ranchers’ land.
Since the 1930s, the gray wolf has been nearly wiped out. The coyote, paradoxically, has thrived. One reason, scientists now realize, is coyote social organization. Coyotes live in groups where only the alpha male and female reproduce. However, if one member of that pair is killed, the group’s social structure is disrupted, and the surviving females start to have pups. With fewer coyotes competing for food, more pups are born in each litter, and more of those pups survive. Coyotes from outside the area also move in. The result: Within a year or two, there are as many or more coyotes in an area where the animals have been killed than before. Eric Gese, a Wildlife Services researcher, found that after 60 to 70 percent of the coyotes in an area of southeastern Colorado were killed, pack size and density rebounded within just eight months.
Ironically, coyote killing actually encourages survivors to eat sheep: Targeted populations have fewer adults to go out hunting and more young to feed, and sheep serve as a big and easy meal, writes Robert Crabtree of Yellowstone Ecosystem Studies, who’s researched the animals in California, Washington state, and Wyoming.
Coyotes are resilient because they had to be, explains Crabtree; they evolved in the shadow of the gray wolf, a bigger and more aggressive canid. Wolves kept coyotes in check, sometimes by killing them, more often by driving them out of their territories. Professor William Ripple of Oregon State University calls this “the ecology of fear.”
As humans altered this ecological balance by killing off the gray wolf, the coyote took over, expanding its range from Mexico, the Southwest, and the Midwest to nearly all North America, from Northern California to Alaska and the East Coast. Yellowstone coyote populations have dropped by half since wolves were reintroduced in 1995; elsewhere, they are limited only by the food supply, says Ripple.
“Having these huge numbers of coyotes is definitely an issue,” he says. “But we should question whether killing coyotes is really effective. We should start looking at the ecology and the cause of the problems, rather than work on the symptoms.”
In many places, coyotes have replaced wolves at the top of the food chain. They control populations of jackrabbits, rodents, opossums, and foxes. This in turn protects grass that cattle eat and birds who nest or feed on or near the ground.
Yet despite their role in the ecosystem, in much of the country coyotes are treated like “varmints.” In most states, they can be legally killed in any manner at any time. In Minnesota, a bill to allow bounties was approved last year; The HSUS helped defeat similar bills in Maine and North Dakota. Contests in at least 200 communities offer prizes for the biggest coyote or the most coyotes killed. Competitors summon the animals using imitations of coyotes in distress, then shoot them using high-powered rifles equipped with telescopic sights.
Elsewhere, in a practice known as penning, hunters release dog packs on coyotes in fenced-in enclosures. “They use them because they last a little bit longer than foxes,” says Casey Pheiffer, director of The HSUS’s Wildlife Abuse Campaign, which is working to end penning in Virginia, Indiana, and other states. “And nobody cares what happens to coyotes.”