Posted by: Renee Owens | December 24, 2012

Much loved, often hated, always misunderstood, the American coyote is here to stay.

To read my latest article published on San Diego Loves Green’s website, click on this link, or simply read below. To see some of the other interesting articles on environmental news, visit San Diego Loves Green website here.

coyote and pup

Coyotes: the Media’s Modern Bogeyman

At this very moment scientists are growing algae for biofuel, making contact lenses that change color to alert diabetics of low blood sugar, and doctors are fighting cancer using sound instead of radiation. When such amazing advances are becoming the norm, why is it we are continuously befuddled and alarmed by something that has lived in our midst, unchanging, for centuries? Not only has it lived quietly among us, it shares more than 99% of its DNA with our beloved canine children.

I am of course speaking of the coyote, Canis latrans, a species native to all states in our nation except Hawaii. We have crossed each other’s paths for hundreds of years, and yet Homo sapiens are increasingly resistant to the idea that coyotes are an integral and permanent part of our shared wild landscapes.

San Diego county is a recent casualty of this conundrum. Just last week the local television news ran a story about a coyote that nabbed a poodle from its yard while the owner was at work. The reporter gave no further information, except to exclaim “the coyote lives in this canyon behind me, the very same one that kids ride through on their way to school!” Real news must have been scarce that day, because the inference that coyotes are waiting in the bushes ready to snatch the nearest unsuspecting child is science fiction. Throughout history coyote attacks on humans have been exceedingly rare and almost never cause serious injury, statistically you are more likely to be attacked by an indignant chicken than a coyote.

Sadly, such fear-mongering is quickly outpacing reality. NBC ran a story in May where the reporter quoted a homeowner speculating about an observed coyote’s next victim, “[it] could be a baby crawling on a blanket in the backyard, [while] mom’s in the kitchen watching him. This coyote would size up just about anything”, and “there’s one extra-large one that kind of looks like a wolf.” (As a biologist who has studied truly dangerous creatures including crocodiles and anacondas, one thing I have learned is that the perceived size of an animal is directly proportionate to the fear held by the person relating the story. Those who are phobic see animals of truly monstrous proportions.) Devoid of facts, the story leaves the reader wondering about the resident’s imaginative storytelling, which has nothing to do with real coyote behavior.

This problem is that sensationalism and fear-mongering about carnivores results in much worse than irresponsible journalism. At present there is an ongoing contest in New Mexico, where residents are being encouraged to shoot as many coyotes as they can, the prize being a new shotgun. This is alarming when you consider that the endangered Mexican gray wolf, numbering fewer than 100 and hanging on by a thread in New Mexico, and could easily be mistaken for a coyote by an overeager hunter. Such hunts not only result in a high illegal take of non-target animals, they promote an attitude that denies the reality that coyotes are integral, sentient cogs in the wheels of our ecosystems. These contests are often followed by a significant rise in rodent populations, as the loss of carnivores inevitably disrupts the balance of predator-prey relationships.coyote leg hold trap

Homeowner complaints about coyotes too often result in government employees called in to kill the problem. By far the preferred method of killing continues to be the cheapest:  trapping. This is despite the fact that steel leg-hold traps and snares are not only indiscriminate to species, but have been declared inhumane by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, and the National Animal Control Association. Even the Sierra Club, a group demonstrably supportive of hunters, has adopted a national policy opposing use of body gripping traps for any reason. Their motivation isn’t rocket science: whether it’s a coyote or your house cat, a trapped animal does not die a quick death; it is a slow, agonizing process of strangulation, blood loss, or exposure. Be aware that even in California where it is illegal to trap for sport, the feds are permitted to set body gripping traps on public lands and within feet of your private property.dog in conibear

For decades taxpayers have paid tens of millions of dollars to the federal government for coyote eradication programs; specifically, to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services branch. Such management strategies have repeatedly failed to resolve any conflicts, nor have they reduced coyotes populations over time (see WildEarth Guardian’s 2009 report for details on how the federal government uses tax dollars to kill thousands of predators annually). They have also resulted in countless protected species being accidentally killed as a part of the archaic practices of the USDA’s animal killing agents.

The reason coyote elimination strategies fail is because Mother Nature has a way of adapting where she can. Biologists know that when coyotes are removed from an area, the neighboring coyotes will move into the newly unoccupied niche to take advantage of available resources, or if there are resident coyotes remaining they will produce more pups per litter, and possibly more litters per year.

This reality comes on the heels of other myths, such as the idea more coyotes observed means their population is ‘exploding’, or that coyotes near our homes means they have lost their fear of us. In actuality coyotes are shy animals who shun close contact with humans. What they have learned, however, is that human residences offer a smorgasbord of food: garbage, bird seed, smelly compost, lawn-loving rabbits, rats, and yes, small pets. Without even exiting our cars we can purchase a day’s worth of calories for two bucks at a burger joint; we easily forget that for wild carnivores successfully procuring enough food to survive is a lifelong struggle.

coyote coupleIf you find the presence of coyotes in your neighborhood alarming, be aware they have been quietly foraging around suburban areas for years. As we develop and fragment more of their native habitat at an exponential rate, they are forced to look for food wherever they can, fear of deadly roads and humans notwithstanding. Yet there is more to the coyote than just its drive for food. For example, a recent study from Ohio State University discovered that all of the urban coyotes observed were monogamous – they mate for life. And they eat much more than clueless house cats; it is widely known they play an integral role in controlling rodent populations, and thus could reduce rate of outbreaks of rodent-borne diseases contagious to humans.

So how do you keep coyotes from invading your personal space? Most importantly remove food lures, reinforce exclusion devices like fences, and urge your neighbors to do the same. Keep your cats indoors (the birds will thank you for it), and don’t leave small dogs unattended in a yard with a fence that can easily be hurdled or dug under. For more on how to keep your pets safe from coyote predation, see the Humane Society’s coyote page, and check out Roll Guard’s latest invention.Coyotes in Littleton, Colo

On a personal note, the irony of my own ‘coyote problem’ is not lost on me. On the floor by my desk is our latest ICU patient: a fat hen named Puff. She is one of my best layers, and even after being rescued literally from the jaws of a coyote (by our rescued American Dingo who is part time couch potato, part time watch dog), she produced an egg while recuperating, despite four puncture wounds and a bruised backside.

I understand that our coyote neighbors are trying to survive, and that we moved into territory they occupied long before we arrived. The aging fence around our property needed minor repairs; we didn’t notice. The coyotes did. Obviously I don’t appreciate the coyote’s penchant for my otherwise happy, free-range chickens. But we have accepted that like or not, the coyotes are here to stay, and our best option is to find a way to coexist. And although Puff might disagree, I would find life at night a bit emptier without the coyotes’ boisterous, staccato  howls echoing across the canyon, reminding us what the call of the wild really sounds like. It is a simple thing that hasn’t changed in our increasingly mechanized, technophilic world, and I hope it never does.

coyote howl

To request a workshop on coyote exclusion, contact the author at renee@wildlifezone.net or visit http://www.projectcoyote.org/resources.html

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