By Brian Vincent
The coyote, also known as the prairie wolf, is found throughout North and Central America, ranging from Panama in the south, north through Mexico, the U.S., and Canada and as far north as Alaska. The name "coyote" was borrowed from Mexican Spanish, which is itself borrowed from the Nahuatl word coyōtl. Its Latin name Canis latrans means "barking dog.”
Despite being extensively hunted and trapped, the coyote is one of the few carnivores that has enlarged its territory. Coyotes originally ranged in the western half of North America, but have adapted readily to the changes caused by human occupation and, since the early 19th century, have been steadily extending its range. Coyotes have moved into most of the areas of North America formerly occupied by wolves. Highly adaptable, coyotes live in diverse settings, even successfully making their homes in suburbs, towns, and cities.
Coyotes have faced centuries of relentless persecution. They have been hunted and trapped for their pelts or killed by the hundreds of thousands to protect ranching and farming interests. Even today, coyote fur is used for coats and is particularly popular for men’s coats. Because coyotes are resilient, some argue coyotes should be aggressively “managed.” However, lethal control of coyotes is not only inhumane and unnecessary but counter-productive.
Government Killing Spree
A little known federal agency, Wildlife Services, spends millions of taxpayer dollars every year to exterminate coyotes and other wildlife. The agency, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, kills coyotes using a variety of barbaric methods including trapping, poisoning, gassing pups in their dens, shooting them from the air, and through hunting contests and bounties. In 2006, alone, the agency killed: 87,877 coyotes.
Wildlife Services prefers two toxins to kill coyotes: Compound 1080, a rat poison developed by the Nazis during World War II, and M44 projectile devices, a spring-loaded, baited mechanism that releases sodium cyanide into the mouth of any animal who disturbs it. To distribute 1080, the agency uses Livestock Protection Collars. The collar has a bladder attached that contains 1080—a poison so lethal a single teaspoon can kill 100 people. Odorless, colorless, and tasteless, it causes symptoms similar to a heart attack or seizure. It not only kills the coyote but any animal who feeds on the carcass.
Trapping may be the most inhumane method used by Wildlife Services, other public agencies, and private interests to kill coyotes. Most states do not require trappers to check traps for two to four days, allowing the animal to suffer. When not killed outright by the trap, coyotes can endure physiological trauma, dehydration, exposure to severe weather, and predation by other animals. Trappers usually club, suffocate, or strangle coyotes because a bullet hole and blood would reduce a pelt’s value. Most traps are notoriously indiscriminate, capturing any animal who triggers them. Non-target species found in traps include endangered species, raptors, dogs, and cats. Even if released, they may die from injuries or reduced ability to hunt or forage for food. The most commonly used trap is the jaw leghold trap, a restraining device with spring-loaded steel jaws that clamp on a coyote’s foot or leg when triggered. Leghold traps can cause severe swelling, lacerations, fractures, self-mutilation, limb amputation, and death. A desperate coyote will often try to chew off a limb to escape. Snares are also used to capture coyotes. These primitive wire nooses are designed to tighten around a coyote’s leg or neck. While small victims of neck snares may become unconscious in ten minutes, larger animals, like coyotes, may struggle for days.
Aerial gunning involves helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to shoot coyotes and other wildlife. Though Wildlife Services claims it shoots only animals who have caused damage, it is difficult to identify the animal responsible. Any carnivore unlucky enough to fall within sight of an agency’s low-flying aircraft is shot. Since aerial gunning is imprecise, non-target animals, like dogs or endangered wolves, are often killed. Aerial gunning is also used for “preventative predator control,” permitting agents to gun down as many coyotes as they can prior to ranch animals entering an area. The price tag for shooting coyotes from the sky can be high: killing one coyote can cost nearly $1,000.
Denning is the practice of tracking coyotes to their dens, then killing pups hiding inside. Poisonous gas canisters are placed in dens to asphyxiate pups. Or government agents dig the pups out and “dispatch” them by shooting, decapitating, or clubbing them. Pups are even been burned alive in their dens.
Bounties, Contest Hunts
Engaging people in killing carnivores is common. Bounties and contest hunts are relied on in western states. Most contest hunts focus on coyotes where hunters compete to kill the most coyotes within a specified time. Bounty and contest hunts are ruthless and ineffective and foster antipathy toward carnivores, degrading them to vermin status. During these hunts entire coyote packs are shot, their ears taken, and their bodies left to rot.
Coyote "Control" Ineffective
Research shows lethal coyote control is ineffective in the long run and often achieves the opposite of what is intended. When left alone, coyotes regulate their numbers. Coyote populations often follow their prey base. For example, when jackrabbit populations decline, coyote populations usually follow the same trend. Much like wolves, coyotes have a highly structured pack hierarchy, with only the alpha pair breeding. Other females, though physiologically capable of reproducing, are "behaviorally sterile." Coyotes respond to lethal control with a number of biological mechanisms, which work very efficiently to boost their numbers. If an alpha pair in the pack is killed, subordinate pack members splinter off from their original pack, forming new packs, breeding, and eventually bearing larger litters of pups. To feed these new litters, coyotes will reluctantly—as they are wary of "novel" foods—prey upon domestic animals, if adequate quantities of their normal diet of mice, gophers, and rabbits are not available. Killing coyotes not only increases the next generation of coyote numbers, but drives them to hunt sheep and calves they would normally avoid.
Coexisting with Coyotes
Most conflicts with coyotes result from people intentionally or inadvertently providing coyotes or their prey with food. Reducing food sources attractive to coyotes is fundamental to eliminating encounters with the animals. To avoid conflicts with coyotes, people should secure companion animals and pet food, clean dirty BBQ grills, and protect ranch and farm animals.
For more information, visit these sites, Big Wildlife: Providing a Voice For North America's Carnivore http://www.bigwildlife.org and A Coalition to End Aerial Gunning of Wildlife http://www.goagro.org.
Photos from Jim Robertson, Animals in the Wild.