Coyote, America’s song dog, is an amazing and magnificent animal who is very misunderstood, historically maligned, and tragically and reprehensibly persecuted. Coyotes are intelligent, playful, affectionate, and devoted caregivers. Native Americans appreciated them as cunning tricksters. They are among the most adaptable animals on Earth and are critical to the integrity of many diverse ecosystems. I know coyotes well having studied them for decades.
North America is home to a very special wild dog—the coyote. Highly respected by Native Americans, coyotes have held a special place in our history. The Navajo’s sheep and goat herders greatly revered coyotes, and referred to them as “God’s dog.” It wasn’t until sheep ranchers began running large herds of unprotected sheep that coyotes began to be viewed in an unfavorable light. I’ve written about these amazing mammals in earlier essays (see also and) and this short piece is an update on what we’re learning about them. It’s essential to revisit just who coyotes are because they (and other predators also called pests) are killed in huge numbers because of incredibly false claims (detailed data about what coyotes and other predators actually do can be found here) that they wreak havoc on livestock and kill pets. Indeed, "Less than a quarter of one percent, 0.23%, of the American cattle inventory was lost to native carnivores and dogs in 2010, according to a Department of Agriculture report." And, "Four percent (4%) of the U.S. total sheep inventory are killed each year by carnivores such as coyotes and dogs according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) ..."
Yes, coyotes rarely attack livestock and dogs and cats but, in fact, dog fights and dog attacks and bites directed toward humans are incredibly more common. In October 2009 two coyotes tragically killed Canadian singer Taylor Mitchell. This was only the second fatal attack on a human by coyotes and the first on an adult. The facts about the attack remain unknown so it is simply irresponsibly misleading to conclude that the coyotes were motivated to kill and eat her as was claimed in the sensationalist National Geographical documentary called "Killed By Coyotes". There is no doubt that coyotes have the opportunity to do significantly more harm than they do but choose not to do so. They have a healthy respect for people and actually avoid us almost all of the time.
Coyotes are native only to the western two-thirds of the continent, although today they can be found from Alaska’s arctic regions to as far south as Costa Rica. Their extreme adaptability has enabled them to fill the void left open by the elimination of other larger predators such as grizzly bears, wolves, and mountain lions. Coyotes also thrive in urban and suburban environments. While their natural prey is primarily rodents and carrion, their omnivorous diet allows them to survive in diverse habitats. Because of what we know about their incredible ability to live just about anywhere and the flexibility they show in social organization, it's misleading to talk about "the coyote."
Coyotes can live on their own, as a mated pair, or as part of a pack with a social structure similar to that of wolves. Packs typically consist of a dominant male and female (often called the "alpha pair"), and extended family members. Typically, only the alpha pair breeds and produces one litter a year. They breed from January through early March, and the gestation period is 63 days. Litter size varies from 4 to 9 pups, with an average of two pups surviving the first year in unexploited populations. Unless they become habituated to humans, coyotes are generally shy and wary of people.
Although coyotes can live into their teens, the average life span in the wild is around five years of age, and a lot shorter when targeted for elimination. Causes of death include predation, disease, weather, hunting, trapping, poison, automobiles, and rampant and wanton predator control by local, state, and federal agencies.
The paradoxical effects of coyote control
Counter-intuitively, programs aimed at reducing coyotes such as lethal control programs and sport trapping and hunting actually cause coyote numbers to increase. Coyotes respond to indiscriminate control programs with a number of complex biological mechanisms that work very efficiently to boost their numbers. For example, when the alpha pair is killed, subordinate pack members can breed and produce larger litters of bigger pups with higher survival rates. In order to feed more robust litters, coyotes may change their hunting habits to include unnatural and larger prey, such as livestock. Thus increased persecution leads to bigger populations and increased predation, a response that is just the opposite of what the control is designed to accomplish.
The importance of coyotes in ecological balance
Like other top predators, coyotes play a critical role in keeping natural areas healthy. In fact, coyotes are considered to be a keystone species, meaning that their presence or absence has a significant impact on the surrounding biological community. For instance, because coyotes reduce the number of nest predators and jackrabbits, sage grouse benefits include higher chick survival and less competition for food.
By exerting a top-down regulation of other species, coyotes maintain the balance in the food web below and around them. When coyotes are absent or even just greatly reduced in a natural area, the relationships between species below them in the web are altered, putting many small species at risk.
It's clear and inarguable that we should respect coyotes for whom they are and appreciate that they still bless our lives. Hysterical over-reactions that result in the killing of more than 80,000 coyotes a year by Wildlife Services is thoroughly unjustified and indeed, Wildlife Services has been widely criticized for their wanton murderous ways. According to WildEarth Guardians, "Between 2004 and 2011, Wildlife Services killed over 26 million animals purportedly to 'protect' agribusiness or 'bolster' hunting opportunities – a contention based on unsupported myths. The agency spends over $100 million each year on wildlife-killing actions."
Much information about coyotes is available from Project Coyote and Predator Defense, both of which organizations work tirelessly to promote getting out the true facts about coyotes and other predators, to offer ideas about humane education, and work for peaceful coexistence. Peaceful coexistence is easy to accomplish and we should all aspire to having more harmonious relationships with the amazing beings with whom we share our homes as we head into the future.
Note: A recent essay in the New York Times provides an excellent review of the lives and plight of urban coyotes.