Category Archives: Critters of all kinds

Life with Coyotes

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A good annual nutrition program for a coyote would be a 1000 mice, 500 gophers, 1000 grasshoppers and other large insects, 500 lbs of the assorted dead, weak, diseased, wounded, and dying critters, plus a fair number of rabbits, ground nesting birds, fish, frogs, snakes, lizards, and fruits and nuts. Wildlife biologists in South Dakota have estimated that on average coyotes consume by weight; 55% mammals (mainly rodents and rabbits),15% birds,15% carrion, 10% vegetation (mostly plums, apples, watermelons, and other fruits), and 5% grasshoppers and other insects.

With their long slender snout, extremely fast reflexes, and pouncing ability, they are the world’s best mouse trap. Their hearing is good enough that they can pinpoint the position of the mouse, vole, or other small critter rustling under the snow, pounce on the exact spot, pin the critter down, snap it up, flinging it high into the air as a flourish, catching and gulping it down in one fluid motion.

It is unfortunate that coyotes discovered that lambs were so weak, helpless, and tasty. Unlike deer, antelope, and other wild young that are well-hid, camouflaged, and defended, most mother sheep are, well, sheepish, and easy. Lambburger is the McDonald’s of coyote lunches. A little dangerous, but oh so convenient. I raised sheep for many years, and I did finally find some hair sheep (non-sheared), where the mothers had some fight in protecting their young. I know because both my dog Lop and I got run over a few times moving lambs into a protected spot. However, even the best ewes are nothing like the whitetail doe that nailed my nosy dog in the cattails. The dog blundered onto a fawn and came streaking out soaking wet, yipping, and with a doe inches behind, dead set on catching him, and finish stomping the life out of him. Good open field maneuvers and a low trailer saved young Lop’s day. Old Lop and the wild of his kind are not overly brave around sloughs come Spring.

It would have been the cultural norm for me to take up an annihilation philosophy toward coyotes, but life pushed me to a different mindset. The history of domestic livestock depredation especially through the 1960s into the 1970s is wrought with mass poisoning extermination plans of predators. I never took much stock with poisoning, and these plans failed miserably as most of the coyotes or other targeted predators poisoned were those more prone to eat the poisoned carrion than to kill a lamb for breakfast. Hence, the coyotes with a taste for fresh killed meals multiplied and instead of having families of 2- 4 pups, which is normal with a balanced food supply, the female coyotes sensed the loss of competition for food and had litters of 7- 10. It makes sense that most of these pups learned their parents’ habit of avoiding the carrion. All we succeeded doing was destroying rodent control, and hurting the sanitation service and disease reduction coyotes had provided over the centuries to our game animal world. The more we unbalanced the web of life, the more we knocked the population balance of one species like coyote out of sync, and the bigger were the resulting problems we had to find another fix for.

My favorite coyote story is Don Coyote by Dayton O Hyde. Dayton, a rancher in an Oregon mountain valley of the 1950s through the 1970s, tells one of his great ranching stories around a three-legged coyote, The Don. In the story he describes a summer when meadow mice destroy all his meadows and seriously imperil his cattle operation. He connects this with the massive coyote poisoning and trapping program that had wiped out the primary meadow mice predator, which were the smaller coyotes living in the valleys closest to man. He told how the poison took untold numbers of non-target animals and how, later, the larger desert coyotes moved in to fill the annihilated coyotes’ void. He related how these larger coyotes were much more damaging to the sheep ranchers, who still didn’t get that the best protection came from targeting the lamb-loving coyotes, not the whole species. That the species filled an important ecological function, and besides being important to nature, coyotes were important to mankind including sheep people who needed rodent control like everybody else. Dayton was a rancher who could envision the whole picture.

Coyotes are usually seen out hunting by themselves or sometimes working in pairs, although they often have fairly sociable extended family groups that take turns helping the parents feed and guard the pups. This makes it, so even when both parents have been killed, the pups still have a good chance of surviving. Coyotes have become so wary that they are even a test for today’s coyote hunters with an arsenal of high tech calls, recordings, baits, scents, camo, and such. Actually, South Dakota along with Kansas and Missouri were states that caught on early and moved more toward eliminating the problem coyote(s) rather than just wholesale killing.

In the northeastern U.S. with an explosion of the whitetail deer population, there are reports of some hybrids between the wolves out of Canada and coyotes moving in from the west. Around human population centers, wolves are bold enough to get themselves killed, but the hybrid seems to have enough of a coyote’s wary nature to survive, and in gaining some size from the wolf side, they are better able to harvest at least the weaker, less thrifty deer. Some deer hunters are paranoid about the hybrid messing up their easy to find deer bonanza, but they should recognize that coyotes help keep the deer population healthy. Humans sure aren’t going to select the weak, diseased, and wounded. With small islands of domestic stock growers, the hybrid would obviously be more capable of taking calves. There is something to be said for protective (snotty) mother cow vs the sweet-natured one that lets us easily tag her calf.

Especially in the West, coyotes, although a third to one-fifth the size of wolves, and lacking the pack hunting nature, look similar enough to have gotten spill over vilification and persecution due to the age-old wolf paranoia. But today, even with the wolf there is hope we can get livestock protection without annihilation, letting the wolf fill its niche in the big game ecology of the extensive western public lands. I have a good rancher friend, Garl Germann, who is working with wildlife agencies experimenting with daytime herding, combined with nighttime portable corral systems. I believe that this test bed will get enough positive results to be eventually mandated for grazing leases on public land, and will likely be considered by some ranchers for grazing their private lands. Besides getting holistically managed herding to upgrade the grasses and protect the riparian (near the rivers) areas, the quick, easy nighttime corrals keep livestock depredation by wolves down. Garl has a blog site called Rodearing (Spanish for rounding up) that explains the overall process. Key to the system is something that early Polish peasants learned about how wolves could be funneled into a trap by ropes with old rags tied at intervals. The wolves refused to duck under the flapping rags even with hunters pressing in hot pursuit. The idea has been adapted and used as a way to make nighttime corrals keep wolves away. Portable electric fence keep the cattle herd concentrated, while the plastic flags strung along it (fladry) keep the wolves from ducking under. The wolves eventually do test the fladry after about 60 days, often by biting it. Which makes venison look so much more attractive.

We don’t have wolf packs here, so I don’t have to put up a carnival corral. I get to raise cattle with relative peace of mind. Even with calves around here, coyotes only get the afterbirth from the cattle that have lost the instinct to do so themselves; and if the calf dies in birth, the cow can hold the coyotes at bay for several hours before letting it become a coyote banquet. I’m still a little amazed when I see cattle let a coyote walk by or even though the herd without much fanfare. Occasionally a couple mother cows will stare or give a short chase.

And sorry, you’ll have to read the Dayton O. Hyde’s story to find out what happens to Don Coyote.