Earth Island News
Protecting America’s Song Dog
When Europeans arrived in North America, there were about 250,000 wolves living in what are now the lower 48 states. Today, about 5,000 wild wolves remain. Hunted nearly to extinction, the species was not able to adapt to persecution and the expansion of human settlements.
The experience of America’s iconic native “song dog” – the coyote – has been quite different. Despite more than 150 years of persecution similar to that experienced by wolves, coyotes have expanded their range threefold since the 1850s and now inhabit all of the Canadian provinces and every state except Hawaii. With the near eradication of wolves, coyotes have found a new ecological niche. The canines have adapted to living close to people and can be found in even the most urbanized places, including the megacities of Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.
But the coyote’s knack for coexistence isn’t always shared by humans. For while coyotes have little trouble living in human-dominated areas, some people have little tolerance for the wild canines.
At least 19 subspecies of coyotes roam North and Central America. As the top carnivore in some environments, coyotes may function as “keystone predators,” helping regulate the number and density of smaller mesocarnivores (skunks, raccoons, foxes, feral cats). In this way, coyotes help maintain healthy ecosystems and local biodiversity.
Like wolves, coyotes often live in organized social packs, even in urban areas. They also live as solitary individuals or in monogamous pairs. Reproduction is generally limited to the pack’s leaders, the dominant male and female; other females in the group remain behaviorally sterile. Breeding season peaks in mid-February, followed by four to eight pups born in April or May. Males and females may disperse in late fall, and those that remain with their parents form the basis of the pack.
In rural habitats, coyotes are diurnal, hunting by day and night. In urban areas, coyotes appear to be more nocturnal but can be seen during daylight, especially at dawn and dusk. They are commonly heard howling and yipping at night in response to sirens and other loud noises. The coyote’s scientific name, Canis latrans, means “barking dog.” With approximately a dozen different vocalizations, two coyotes communicating with each other can often be mistaken for a large pack.
Opportunistic omnivores, coyotes take advantage of whatever foods are easiest to obtain: rodents, rabbits, deer, insects, reptiles, and fruit. As scavengers, they provide a beneficial service by keeping ecosystems clean of carrion. Coyotes will take advantage of any accessible food, including garbage, pet food – and the occasional house cat.
The very traits that have allowed coyotes to thrive and coexist with humans have also led to negative encounters with people and their domestic animals. Most wild coyotes fear humans. But those who associate humans with food may become habituated to their presence. The abundance of food, water, and shelter offered by urban landscapes – coupled with unsecured garbage, unfenced gardens, and unattended domestic animals – can lead to conflicts.
People who move to the outskirts of urban areas sometimes forget that with wild land comes wildlife. Most are unaware of coyotes living in their midst, as coyotes tend to avoid humans. The vast majority of human-coyote encounters are merely sightings. When conflicts do occur, intentional or unintentional feeding of coyotes is often the cause. Coyotes may prey on unsupervised cats and small dogs, since these animals are similar to their natural prey. During mating and pupping seasons, coyotes become more active and territorial. Negative encounters are most likely at these times, and this is when it’s important to keep cats indoors, walk dogs on leashes, and tightly secure garbage and compost. As with bears, a fed coyote is a dead coyote.
That’s because our society historically has attempted to solve human-coyote conflicts through killing. Yet despite decades of poisoning, trapping, and shooting, more coyotes inhabit North America today than ever before. In fact, the coyote’s remarkable success appears closely related to human attempts to control their populations. As with many wild species, coyote populations are naturally regulated by available food and habitat. Lethal control, however, can disrupt the group hierarchy, which allows more coyotes to reproduce, encouraging larger litter sizes because of decreased competition for food and habitat, and increasing pup survival rates. It is also highly likely that lethal control favors the survival of the most resilient and genetically robust coyotes.
At least 400,000 coyotes are killed each year by federal, state, and local governments and by private individuals. The US Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program kills approximately 90,000 coyotes annually (see chart). Most of these killings are carried out in the name of “livestock protection” at taxpayers’ expense. Despite scientific evidence suggesting this approach is misguided and ultimately ineffective, the emphasis on lethal coyote control persists. Coyotes are also killed for their fur, for “sport,” and in “body-count” contests in which prizes are awarded for killing the most coyotes. Most states set no limit on the number of coyotes that may be killed, nor do they regulate the killing method.
|Poison (including Sodium Cyanide)||
|Denning (Killing pups in their dens)||
|TOTAL coyotes killed
(including methods not listed in this chart)
|* “Calling” is the use of sounds of distressed young or wounded prey to lure coyotes into shooting range.|
Few state wildlife agencies are equipped to handle the growing number of human-wildlife conflicts. Furthermore, many animal control officers – often the first responders to urban human-wildlife conflicts – don’t receive training in human-wildlife conflict mitigation, or wildlife ecology and behavior. The knee-jerk response to seeing coyotes in urban neighborhoods is often lethal control, which may appease some community members but does little to resolve long-term conflicts.
Project Coyote was founded in 2008 to address this problem. Project Coyote aims to create a shift in attitudes toward coyotes and other native carnivores by replacing ignorance and fear with understanding and appreciation. Through our educational programs and materials – including our ever-expanding Web site, www.ProjectCoyote.org – we help communities and wildlife managers learn about the important ecological role coyotes play. We suggest ways to reduce negative human-coyote encounters in rural and urban areas, and offer tools and resources to help individuals and communities take action.
Toward this end, we co-launched a documentary film called American Coyote: Still Wild at Heart – a case study of the coyote’s expansion. Starting with the return of coyotes to the San Francisco Bay Area, it pursues the coyote’s story across North America – from New York’s Central Park to Chicago and points in between. Through interviews with coyote experts, ecologists, and researchers, the film reveals the adaptability and intelligence of this resourceful carnivore and the challenges and opportunities coyotes provide to urban and rural communities.
In addition to this public education work, Project Coyote promotes innovative research into humane, practical, and ecologically based approaches to coyote-human/livestock conflicts. We work with researchers to identify areas that need further investigation and we organize collaborative enterprises between government agencies, carnivore experts, ecologists, and organizations that share a similar vision.
Project Coyote also advocates on behalf of coyotes and other wildlife at the federal, state, and local levels. Earlier this year, we successfully convinced legislators in Maine to amend a bill that would have extended coyote night hunting in the state. At the federal level, we are working with a coalition of organizations to bring attention to taxpayer subsidized lethal predator control programs and to the trapping – for recreation and profit – of coyotes and other wild animals on National Wildlife Refuges. At the local level, our team of experts provides site-specific, science-based expertise about effective, long-term approaches to mitigate conflicts and promote educated coexistence.
Listening to Coyote
As an American icon that has endured centuries of persecution, coyotes have much to teach us about adaptability and resilience. Indigenous tribes revered the coyote for her keen intelligence, mischievous nature, and aptitude for observational learning. The Aztec name for the coyote was coyotl, which loosely translates to “trickster,” while Navajo sheep and goat herders referred to the coyote as “God’s dog.” Love them or hate them, coyotes are here to stay. In the face of rapid environmental and cultural change in an increasingly fragmented world, we could learn a great deal from America’s native “song dog” – if we would only stop, observe, and listen.
– Camilla H. Fox
Camilla Fox is the co-author of Coyotes in Our Midst: Coexisting with an Adaptable and Resilient Carnivore.