Coyotes are here to stay, we should learn to live with them

Because we missed the howl of the coyote this summer, we learned a lesson. Let us tell you about it; it begins with Native Americans who lived in better harmony with the Earth than we do now.

The name “coyote” comes from the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and means “barking dog.” A culture before the Aztecs worshipped the coyote as a deity.

The native carnivore was part of the tribal legend of many North American tribes, too. A trickster figure, the coyote was respected by the tribes that hunted them, using their pelts for warmth, their meat for food, and even their skulls for decoration and spiritual protection.

When Europeans came to settle the continent, they reviled the coyote. The predator, which largely occupied the western plains, was seen as harmful to farm animals. The legacy lasts to this day.

In his book, “Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History,” Dan Flores tells how for decades in the last century, the federal government designated coyotes for eradication. The federal Damage Control Act earmarked $10 million to wipe out coyotes.

But rather than eliminating coyotes — there are 19 subspecies in Central America and North America — it spread their domain from the great plains all across the continent, from sea to shining sea, and from the wild areas into the suburbs and cities.

“Biologist Fred Knowlton would finally untangle the behavior of coyotes under assault,” Flores writes, “and a computer simulation by biologist Guy Connolly using Knowlton’s insights…would produce an almost mind-bending revelation.

“With the species under siege from efforts to wipe it out…the species evolutionary colonizing mechanisms kicked in.” Under attack, the coyotes produce larger litters; packs break up, and pairs and individual coyotes scatter to define new territories.

Also, more pups survive in an area where many coyotes are killed because food, without other coyote competition, becomes more readily available. Some researchers maintain that the disruption of pack structure also disrupts the training across generations of coyotes that promotes consumption of wild prey, thereby increasing killing of livestock or pets instead — in short, it makes the problems with coyotes worse for humans.

A California-based advocacy group, Project Coyote, cites research showing at least half a million coyotes are killed annually in the United States by federal, state, and local governments as well as by individuals, with taxpayers footing $100 million annually for the coyote-killing, all for the purpose of protecting livestock.

We like the approach taken by one local farmer, Barry Kuhar. He has 80 head of cattle in Rensselaerville but doesn’t shoot every coyote he sees as some farmers do. New York State puts no limits on how many coyotes can be hunted or trapped in season. Nothing would prevent Kuhar from killing a coyote when he sees one.

But Kuhar is as wily as the coyote trickster of tribal legend. He observes nature and knows that coyotes are territorial. If he sees a coyote with his herd that isn’t killing calves, he leaves it alone. Kuhar believes, if he killed it, another coyote — one that might be a calf-killer — could replace it.

The federal government needs to re-think its policies. Flores’s book cites many examples of the government vilifying the coyote. One of the most colorful was a canned piece from the 1930s that, in the era of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, described coyotes as the “gangsters of the animal kingdom” and bureau hunters as heroic G-men who would protect society, “man and beast, against the animal underworld.” The illustrated piece ran in newspapers across the country.

The current coyote-a-minute death rate is creating rather than solving problems for people. According to figures from the United States Department of Agriculture, of the coyotes killed in 2014, the latest figures available, 34 percent were gunned from airplanes, 30 percent were trapped, 18 percent were poisoned, and 13 percent were shot.

Coyotes in our midst have become a fact of life, by our society’s own doing. We should learn to live with them.

We’ve published a list of recommendations from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation for co-existing with coyotes and hope our readers heed them. The recommendations are running alongside a story that started as an investigation into why the coyotes in Knox have been silent this summer.

We, too, miss the calls we heard summer after summer at the foot of the Helderberg escarpment. We didn’t find an answer to our question, but we learned much that is worth sharing from not just the DEC but from farmers and trappers.

If a society that once reviled the wolf and sought to eradicate it has now seen its worth and is bringing it back from near extinction, we believe there is hope for appreciation of the coyote, too.

The coyote is ubiquitous and part of an environmental web that we humans have yet to completely untangle. Just last week, we wrote about New York State as ground zero for a number of tick-borne illnesses, illnesses that are on the rise, some of them fatal.

Asked about the effects coyotes or foxes may have on tick-borne diseases, Bryon Backenson, with the state’s Department of Health who has studied tick-borne diseases for a quarter of a century, said, “It’s really complicated…Small mammals play an important role in tick-borne disease.”

The vast majority of illness comes from nymphal ticks, he said, which feed on small animals like mice, shrews, and chipmunks. Some scientists are “teasing apart” the “predator impact” but at this point, he said, “There is not a real good answer.”

As human beings, we must be careful what we mess with. Government programs, spending millions in taxpayer money, to kill coyotes is worse than pointless because the attempts at eradication have instead led to proliferation. We humans have great hubris, tampering with a natural order we don’t fully understand.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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