Blue Planet: Long live Coyote

By DAN WHIPPLE, UPI Science News  |  Sept. 20, 2002 at 5:36 PM
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In 1872, Mark Twain wrote the coyote "is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede."

Twain's portrait has held up well over the past 130 years. Wily coyote is still out of luck and friendless. He outpolls the devil and Darwinism as the embodiment of evil in the American West. Missing sheep? Fewer deer? Lost Chihuahua? Missing child? You can always blame Coyote.

Coyote wasn't always so maligned. In an Okanagan creation myth, recounted in "American Indian Myths and Legends" by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, the Old One sent Coyote to kill the monsters and other evil beings that had grown up in the newly created world. "And Coyote began to travel on the earth, teaching the Indians, making life easier for them, and performing many wonderful deeds," the authors wrote.

With this honorable tradition pursuing the prairie wolf, it is surprising to the casual fan that so little is known about him. Although wildlife managers can tell you to the individual how many deer or elk there are, and probably how many antler buds they've got, no one has any idea how many coyotes there are.

The closest you'll get to an expert opinion is "a lot." In Texas, there can be as many as one coyote per square mile and there seem to be more all the time. My own estimate, extrapolated from state and federal data, is by the year 2011 you'll be able to walk from Omaha to Carson City on the backs of coyotes without once touching the ground.

In a world chock full of bad news for animals -- the extinction rate for the world's species today is 100 to 10,000 times the natural rate of die-off -- the coyote is a wonder of procreation. Formerly restricted to the western U.S., he has opened franchises elsewhere over the last several decades. Coyotes have invaded the East Coast. There is a New England branch of the family. They've been spotted in New York's Central Park and dining on watermelon in Arkansas.

Coyote's poor reputation springs mostly from his appetite -- he'll eat just about anything. In a classic study on coyotes in Yellowstone National Park in 1937-38, biologist Adolph Murie studied coyote scat (droppings) to find out what kind of food they liked. Mostly they ate large and small mammals, as you might expect. But Murie also found: "horse manure, paper, rag, canvas leather glove, butter wrapper, leather (one piece containing a rivet), mouse nest material, seven inches of curtain, two square inches of rubber, tinfoil, shoestring, paint-covered rag, eight inches of rope, three square inches of towel, two pieces of shirt, botfly larvae, canvas, a gunny sack and isinglass."

In other words, Coyote is the tiger shark of land animals.

Unfortunate for him, Coyote also eats sheep, and despite 125 years of trying to eradicate him for that reason, he just keeps coming back -- he is also the Richard Nixon of wildlife.

Although western stockmen have been able to eliminate nearly all the predators that threaten their business -- wolves, bears, foxes, even eagles -- Coyote just hangs in there.

Humans have tried to poison coyotes with the toxin Compound 1080, to no avail. In fact, according to a study by Frederic Wagner, a professor at Utah State University in Logan, lamb losses to coyotes actually increased during the period of 1080 use from 1950 to 1975. Joseph Springer, a professor of animal behavior at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, concluded that poisoned baits taught coyotes eating things they hadn't killed themselves could be dangerous. So Compound 1080 just helped evolve a more efficient predator.

Odd enough, it probably is the elimination of those competing predators, especially the wolf, that has led to Coyote's success -- and his steady diet of sheep.

Biologists have speculated competition from wolves was what originally had restricted the coyote's range to west of the Mississippi. But now evidence arising from Yellowstone National Park -- where coyotes still are presumably dining on paint-covered rags -- suggests the best way to keep coyote populations down is to keep wolf populations healthy.

Gray wolves were reintroduced back into Yellowstone in 1995, about 75 years after they had been eliminated by the livestock industry. Biologist Bob Crabtree has been studying the relationship between the two species.

"In over 200 wolf-coyote interactions observed since 1995," he wrote in the journal Yellowstone Science, "we have witnessed wolves killing coyotes 23 times. ... It appears that the killing of coyotes by wolves during the winters of 1996-97 and 1997-98 resulted in a 50 percent reduction in coyote numbers and significantly reduced pack size ... without subsequent recolonization of traditional coyote territories."

In other words, wolves come in and ruined Coyote's neighborhood. They did what trappers, poisons, hunters, aerial gunning, killing pups in their dens, and roundups have failed to do -- they reduced coyote numbers and, subsequently, sheep predation.

Not only is this practical and scientific approach to coyote control doomed to failure, it also will never even be attempted. The reasons are partly spiritual, and partly economic.

The economic reasons are pretty easy to describe. Coyotes eat sheep, but they generally are too small to kill and eat cattle. Wolves don't have this problem. They are the Mike Tyson of the canine world -- to continue the personification analogies.

Because sheep ranching in the West has declined dramatically and seems doomed to extinction itself -- the result mostly of foreign wool competition, not coyotes -- most ranchers left are cattlemen. In Wyoming, for instance, where Yellowstone and those pesky wolves are located, beef cattle comprise 83 percent of all livestock.

Those cattlemen will not cheerfully sanction replacing coyotes with wolves.

The other reason is spiritual, and is a little harder to grasp. Ranching is the spiritual heart of the West. Most of us grew up on the cowboy myth.

Ranchers have spent more than a century eliminating wolves from the mountains and plains. The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those wolf-eliminators do not want to admit that they've been wrong. They especially don't want to admit it to Vibram-soled environmentalists.

So Coyote, entwined with Wolf, is a parable for the West, and for the survival of endangered animals. If you could bottle Coyote's adaptability and inject it into, say, the black-footed ferret, there would not be so many animals on the brink.

In Indian lore, Coyote was the Trickster, who rebelled against authority. In Crow legend, Coyote creates the world: "In one way or the another, everything that exists or that is happening goes back to Old Man Coyote."

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