Coyotes have lived in North America for over one million years since the Pleistocene. By contrast, the earliest estimates of human populations in North America only reach back 130,000 years (although most scientists believe it occurred much later).
This means that North America’s “Song Dogs” have lived here roughly 6.5 times longer than humans.
These canines are clever, adaptable, and an important species that help to maintain environmental balance.
Additionally, they learn quickly and are good parents who are devoted to their young.
Yet, coyotes are the most persecuted native carnivores in North America.
Although coyotes’ original range was only in the western portion of North America, their adaptability has since allowed them to spread across most of the continent. In their original habitat, they formed an important part of the natural ecosystem.
Since coyotes are omnivores who mainly eat small animals, fruits, and vegetables, they play a crucial role in keeping populations of mid-sized carnivores at healthy levels.
By managing populations of skunks, foxes, and raccoons, coyotes helped prevent these animals from feasting on the eggs of ground-nesting birds. Studies have shown negative results when coyote populations decline. These studies show a particular impact on certain bird populations.
Despite their ecological importance, and their prominent role in many Native American legends, where they are regarded with reverence, ranchers and government bodies have long sought to destroy these canines. In the early to mid-1900s, coyotes were deemed “arch predators” and efforts to control their populations began. The decimation of American wolf populations began this process. After wolves were all but eradicated, people began to view coyotes as a threat to their livestock. A 1931 bill gave the government-run Eradication Methods Laboratory 10 million dollars to spend on streamlining eradication efforts. This is over 201,000,000 dollars today. This led to the wide-scale slaughter of coyotes in the American West. In the nine years between 1947 and 1956, an estimated 6.5 million coyotes were killed.
Mass slaughter of coyotes continues today. According to wildlife organization ProjectCoyote, today roughly 500,000 coyotes are killed each year in the U.S. alone. Agencies and individuals use a variety of brutal and horrifying methods to slaughter coyotes. Poison, trapping, shooting from above, coyote killing contests, and bounties are all methods used. Statistics from ProjectCoyote say that of the coyotes killed, 41 percent are aerial gunned, 30 percent are trapped, 10 percent are poisoned, 18 percent are shot, and 4 percent are killed using other methods.
Sadly, before campaigns of wide-scale coyote killing began there had been little research into the clever canines. Although they were termed “arch predators”, and much of the prejudice towards coyotes came from their supposed killing of livestock, there is little evidence to suggest that killing coyotes protects livestock animals. Indeed, a 2016 analysis comparing lethal and nonlethal methods of coyote control found that the non-lethal methods were more effective at preventing coyotes from killing livestock. ProjectCoyote also states that according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture, less than 0.30 percent of sheep and cow losses reported in 2015 were lost to carnivore predation.
Some evidence also suggests that killing coyotes may increase their population and the likelihood that they will hunt livestock. Although this seems counterintuitive, coyotes have developed a clever biological strategy to ensure their species. When coyote packs are placed under pressure, two important things happen. First, their litter size increases. Second, packs may break up into smaller groups of individuals or pairs. Splitting like this may make them more opportunistic hunters. Coyotes are interesting because, like humans, they can function as part of a large group or alone. This fission-fusion structure and increased litter sizes help maintain, and potentially increase, the overall population of coyotes.
Coyotes’ adaptability has also allowed them to spread far from their native ranges. Now, coyotes can be found throughout much of North America’s Midwestern and Eastern portions. Additionally, they have an increasing presence in many urban centers. This spread from rural to urban landscapes is due to the higher availability of food and longer life expectancies for coyotes. The average coyote in a rural area lives only two and a half years, versus 12 to 13 in urban areas according to National Geographic.
However, coyotes’ continued spread into more heavily populated areas has given rise to a new wave of fears and persecution surrounding these animals. Although coyote attacks against humans and companion animals are feared outcomes of this collision, both are relatively rare. Data collected between 1977 and 2015 documented only 367 documented attacks on humans by non-rabid coyotes in the U.S. and Canada. Out of these 367 attacks, only two were fatal. Additionally, two separate studies, one from 2011 and one from 2017, found less than two percent of coyote scat contained DNA from companion animals.
Rather than continuing the ongoing slaughter of coyotes, North American countries should pivot to prioritizing the use of non-lethal methods of control and deterrence. Ranchers and farmers should be encouraged to use non-lethal coyote deterrence systems such as working dogs and flandry. Additionally, care must be taken to prevent coyotes from becoming habituated to humans. Remember, never feed coyotes and remove access to food sources such as pet food, garbage, and rotting fruit. Hazing is a method that is also used to prevent coyotes from becoming habituated to humans or to scare them away from a certain area. Hazing utilizes deterrents, such as loud noises, to frighten coyotes away from an area. The Humane Society of the United States also advises carrying a coyote deterrent while walking dogs. Keep cats indoors, and move companion and livestock animals inside or into a protected enclosure at night.
Coyotes are highly adaptable creatures, with biological strategies in place to ensure their survival. Instead of treating these canids with cruelty, humanity should learn to live alongside them. Non-lethal measures are more effective than culls at preventing livestock loss. Additionally, taking simple precautions can reduce the likelihood of humans and companion animals being attacked by coyotes. Rather than persecuting and fearing these interesting and complex creatures, humans should respect and admire them. For more information on ending the persecution of coyotes, visit ProjectCoyote, a wildlife protection organization dedicated to fostering understanding for and coexistence with these amazing creatures.
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This article by Willow Lynn was first published by One Green Planet on 24 September 2023. Image Credit :JayPierstorff/Shutterstock.