Feature the Ultimate Survivor

By Mike Finkel

Every year 400,000 coyotes are exterminated in the United States, yet the wily creature continues to flourish.

I hope you kill a lot of coyotes." The local game warden pronounces the word kai-oats, the way it's said in most of the West. "I don't care how you kill 'em. Blow 'em up with dynamite. Run 'em over. Punt 'em like footballs. Whatever." This elicits a good deal of laughter from the 100 or so people I've joined in the small hunting lodge at the Circle G Shooting Park, just south of Gillette, Wyoming.

It is the evening of December 4, 1998, a few minutes before the sixth annual Campbell County Predator Calling Contest is scheduled to begin. The competitors sit shoulder-to-shoulder at long tables, eating steak and baked potatoes. All but two of the participants are men, most of them dressed top-to-bottom in camouflage. Mustaches hang like awnings over upper lips. There are bellies. One wall is decorated with a poster of the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, overlaid with crosshairs.

The game warden is reviewing the contest rules. Over the next 40 hours, the two-person team that kills the most coyotes will win a $200 cash prize. When the warden is finished and the dinner is over, the competitors hurry out of the lodge, climb into pickup trucks, and head onto the back roads of Campbell County, ready to hunt.

Central Wyoming is sere and wind ravaged and sagey -- too harsh for cultivating -- but it is prime sheep-ranching country. These days, however, ranching is in trouble. Profit margins are thin. Coyotes, say sheep ranchers, are a significant part of the problem. Coyotes eat lambs and sheep, and they eat a lot of them -- as many as 250,000 head a year, according to the National Agricultural Statistical Service, costing the wool industry tens of millions of dollars. While in Campbell County, I spend an afternoon on the Iberlin Ranch, where John Iberlin runs 7,000 sheep on 50,000 acres. "Some years I lose 20 or 25 percent of my lambs to coyotes," he tells me. "All my profits are killed off. It doesn't take many coyotes to put you out of business."

In response, some ranchers kill as many coyotes as they can. They organize contests like the one in Campbell County, dozens of them every year. There is the Coyote Derby in Montana, the Predator Hunt Spectacular in Arizona, the San Juan Coyote Hunt in New Mexico, and on the East Coast, the Pennsylvania Coyote Hunt. The con-tests are advertised in sporting-goods stores, gun clubs, and Varmint Masters magazine. It is all perfectly legal.

Contests, though, are not the primary means of exterminating coyotes. One of the largest killers of coyotes is the U.S. government, which has been destroying them on a regular basis since 1931. The program is conducted by a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture known as Wildlife Services. (The agency changed its name from Animal Damage Control last summer in an attempt to soften its image.) In 1996 Wildlife Services agents killed a total of 82,261 coyotes, almost all of them in the 17 states that constitute the American West, where both coyote and sheep populations are concentrated. Twenty-eight thousand of those coyotes were shot from helicopters or airplanes, under Wildlife Services' extensive aerial-gunning program. Twenty-two thousand were poisoned by devices known as M-44s -- baited traps that spray sodium cyanide into the mouths and noses of animals that tug on the bait. Eight thousand were captured using steel-jaw leghold traps. One thousand six hundred were killed in their dens, either by digging them out and shooting them or by gassing them. Each year, approximately $20 million in taxpayer money is used to fund these activities.

Between killing contests, Wildlife Services actions, and state, local, and private agencies, it is estimated that 400,000 coyotes are killed each year. That is more than 1,000 coyotes a day -- almost a coyote a minute. Coyotes are the most maligned mammal in the United States. "It is impossible to exaggerate the intensity of loathing a coyote engenders in some westerners," Hope Ryden writes in her book God's Dog: The North American Coyote.

When killing a certain species becomes a matter of human policy and concerted effort, the fight is almost always one-sided. Passenger pigeons, grizzly bears, gray wolves, blue whales -- all have been brought to extinction, or to the brink of extinction, with ease. Coyotes pose a different challenge altogether. Despite almost a century of uninterrupted killing, despite increasingly sophisticated hunting methods, despite hundreds of millions of government dollars devoted to coyote removal, today more coyotes are living in more places than ever before. And coyotes are spreading not just in ranching country but in metropolises nationwide, from the suburbs of Los Angeles to the streets of New York City.

A few days after the campbell County contest, in another part of Wyoming, Bob Crabtree and I are standing behind spotting scopes in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park, observing a pack of coyotes feeding on an elk carcass. Crabtree, 40, has been studying coyotes for 15 years, the past 9 in Yellowstone. He is the founder and research director of Yellowstone Ecosystem Studies, a nonprofit foundation that conducts long-term research projects in the Yellowstone area. Crabtree is a tall man who seems continually surprised by his tallness. He possesses the type of boundless energy that can exhaust everyone around him; he claims to require only four hours of sleep per night. When something inspires him, which is often, he can furnish long, almost professorial disquisitions -- except that every seventh word is an expletive better suited for a men's room wall.

The coyotes tugging and digging at the carcass are from the Bison Peak pack. The elk was killed by gray wolves, which fed first, stuffed themselves, and bedded down. Now it is the coyotes' turn. Coyotes, found only in North America, look much like domesticated dogs -- say, small German shepherds. Adults weigh about 35 pounds. They are often described as occupying a niche halfway between foxes and wolves, and they have close genetic ties to both.

Most coyotes have burnished silver or reddish gray coats, with black detailing along the saddle area, and with ears, snouts, and legs the color of a bad sunburn. Their tails are great feather dusters of fur, often with a tip that appears to have been dipped into an inkwell. They move across the land with feline precision, stealthy and alert. They can accelerate to speeds of 35 miles per hour.

Coyotes are primarily pack animals, though loners do exist, especially in populations that have been heavily hunted. Relationships within a pack, which can consist of as many as seven adults and a litter of pups, are complex and hierarchical. I watch through the scope as the Bison Peak pack's alpha female strides up to the elk carcass.

The beta male promptly steps back, giving her access to the choicest meat. Two low-ranking yearlings remain a short distance from the elk, waiting for their oppor-tunity to feed. The alpha male, having already eaten, trots up a small rise and assumes sentry duties, scanning the horizon. Crabtree points out a loner coyote, a quarter-mile away, that is hiding in the sagebrush and waiting for the pack to finish their meal. Skirmishes between coyotes are common, but unlike wolves, coyotes never kill one another.

When choosing a mate, coyotes tend to be finicky. Courtship involves much licking and vocalizing, and occasionally, generous food offerings. Once coyotes form a pair, they sometimes bond for life. In a pack, the alpha female usually bears the young, but other adults help with the pup-rearing. Lower-ranking coyotes play with newborns, aid with food gathering, and frequently guard the den. If the parents are killed, these surrogate parents will raise the pups to adulthood. Coyotes can live as long as 10 years, but they often don't survive past their third year, due to predation.

Coyotes can subsist on virtually any type of food. Their preference is rodents -- voles, gophers, mice. In some places, though, they have become insectivores, feeding on grasshoppers, beetles, and grubs. They also eat snakes and lizards and frogs. In cities they dine on rats and house cats. In rural areas a pack will work together to bring down an elk. There has been at least one documented coyote-killed bison. Coyotes enjoy porcupines and turtles and cactus fruit. They can make a buffet out of a city landfill. In 1940 biologist Adolph Murie conducted a detailed study of coyote scat and enumerated 100 different food items. In the Southeast, coyotes have become so enamored of watermelon that many fruit growers have taken to shooting them.

Crabtree and I observe the small drama taking place around the elk carcass until it is nearly sunset. Then, as we are walking back to our cars, the song begins. The Bison Peak pack starts to vocalize: high-pitched yips intermingled with long, plaintive howls -- a richly harmonized cry wavering with crescendos and diminuendos. It is the natural music of the American West, majestic and mesmerizing, cherished even by some people who spend their days trying to silence it.

For coyotes, the vocalizations appear to be used primarily to stake out their territory and to communicate with their pack. Ryden, in God's Dog, chronicles her observations of an adult coyote that seemed to be teaching her pups how to howl -- the adult singing at a certain octave, the pups trying to mimic, the lesson being repeated over and over. At least 11 different kinds of vocalization have been documented, including woofs, barks, yips, growls, yelps, lone howls, group howls, greeting songs, and group yip-howls. After the Bison Peak pack sings, other coyotes join in a group yip-howl. The Druid pack takes up the melody, then the Jasper pack, then the Amethyst pack, the song working its way down the Lamar Valley, echoing off the hillsides.

Crabtree is conducting a coyote study with his wife, Jennifer Sheldon, a biologist with Yellowstone Ecosystem Studies and the author of Wild Dogs: Natural History of the Non-Domestic Canidae. This is an unprecedented time to observe coyote behavior in Yellowstone. For the first six years of the study, coyotes had few natural predators in the Lamar Valley. Then, in 1995, the federal government reintroduced gray wolves to the park. Wolves kill a lot of coyotes, primarily loner adults but also incautious pack members. Crabtree and Sheldon have been documenting the social, behavioral, and dietary changes among coyotes since the reintroduction. Their findings have helped explain how the coyote population, in the face of unrelenting persecution, has proven so extraordinarily resilient.

During the past four years the Yellowstone wolves have reduced the coyote population by about 30 percent. The coyotes have had to rearrange their territorial boundaries, alter their hunting habits, and cope with the continual disruption of their pack structures. Still, the animals are not going to be wiped out in the area. Having evolved in conjunction with wolves -- the two species have shared the same turf for millennia -- coyotes have adapted to being hunted animals. Humans are merely another, less effective predator. (Unlike wolves, humans do not hunt all year, all the time.) Bears, like wolves, prey on coyotes and evolved as top animals in the food chain. "Before the invention of guns and traps, top-level carnivores like bears and wolves had virtually no predators," says Daniel Harrison, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Maine. "They don't show a lot of inherent fear." As a result, bears and wolves did not develop the survival skills they needed to thrive. These species are now endangered primarily because they are so easy to kill.

Coyotes, on the other hand, have an uncanny ability to adapt to almost any situation. A hundred years ago they lived only in the West. Now, as wolves and bears have been killed off, coyotes have been spotted in 49 states (all except Hawaii) and every Canadian province. Biologists believe there are twice as many coyotes now as in 1850, though even a rough estimate of the coyote population is impossible to calculate. Coyotes have been seen near Mexico City and outside Atlanta. Recently two coyotes were photographed in the Bronx, New York, running between taxicabs. These urban coyotes, which can kill pets, are usually rounded up by local authorities and destroyed.

Crabtree and Sheldon's study indicates that coyotes may have a paradoxical survival mechanism. When they are being hunted -- by either wolves or humans -- the number of pups that survive to adulthood is increased significantly. In an unexploited population, only one or two pups in a six-pup litter will live beyond a few months. But in populations that are subject to predation or trapping, most pups survive to adulthood, according to Crabtree and Sheldon. This seems to occur because a decrease in the number of adult coyotes from predation leaves more food for the pups, ensuring a higher survival rate. Coyotes are naturally wary creatures: When the animals have pups, they dig multiple dens, and with any sign that a den has been spotted, a pack -- under cover of night -- will move all the pups to a new den. Unless coyotes are hunted day and night all year long, their population may well continue to expand. "The more coyotes are attacked by humans, the more they become entrenched," Crabtree says. "It is easy to view nature as strictly linear -- coyotes kill sheep, so we kill coyotes -- but the truth is that nature is extraordinarily dynamic. If we simply stopped killing coyotes, it might actually reduce the coyote population and decrease the kills of sheep." Crabtree adds that if the money and effort used to kill coyotes were redirected toward nonlethal predator-control methods -- guard dogs, guard llamas, and better fencing practices -- sheep losses would be even lower.

"What Bob is doing in Yellowstone is absolutely seminal," says Marc Bekoff, a biology professor at the University of Colorado who has been studying coyotes for 29 years. "If Wildlife Services would pay attention, instead of being married to killing animals, they might change their policies, and coyotes would be more manageable. Coyotes are too elusive to be controlled using the government's methods. They can live alone or in pairs or in packs. They can exploit an incredibly wide variety of foods. Of course, these findings are really nothing new. Native Americans have known for centuries about the coyote's adaptability. Why do you think they called coyotes Trickster?"

Crabtree's critics -- and they are many, primarily those employed by Wildlife Services -- and even some of his supporters point to the fact that very little of Crabtree and Sheldon's data has been made public, preventing scientific scrutiny. Crabtree and Sheldon say they intend to publish their studies over the next two years. "It's difficult to put a lot of faith into what Bob Crabtree says -- his words and his data may not agree," says Frederick Knowlton, a research biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center, in Logan, Utah. (The center is affiliated with Wildlife Services.) Knowlton, who has been studying coyote behavior since 1960, argues that it is necessary to kill coyotes to protect livestock even if the coyotes return. "I've been mowing my grass for 30 years, and it still grows back," he says. "That doesn't mean I'm not doing it right."

Crabtree admits that even if government-sponsored killing of coyotes were halted, the animals' innate form of self-regulation would not happen immediately -- he expects that it would require several years for the coyote population to revert to a more natural level. During these years, there would probably be even higher losses of sheep. The livestock industry is a powerful lobby; policy change that would result in greater woes for wool growers, even if only short-term, is not likely to occur.

In all probability, nothing will change. We will continue to kill 400,000 coyotes a year and cause the population to increase when it is entirely possible that, given patience, we wouldn't have to kill any coyotes and the population would shrink. One irony is that if we had not already killed so many wolves and bears, there would be no need to try to reduce the number of coyotes. "Why can't we let wolves control population?" Harrison asks.

Another irony is that if humans could kill coyotes more efficiently, the impact might have unexpected consequences throughout the food chain. "If you removed all the coyotes, the rodent population would expand unchecked," says David Gaillard, a researcher with the Predator Project, an environmental organization that opposes coyote hunting. "Voles and gophers would do more damage, in terms of monetary losses, to rangelands -- damaging forage, digging up fields -- than coyotes cost the livestock industry." So then we would have to start killing voles and gophers. That, of course, could lead to even more species to control. An all-too-human hubris keeps us from admitting that we have met our match in coyotes, that they have outsmarted us for 100 years and will continue to do so. A powerful minority of Americans wants them dead, and so we keep killing them. The government-funded slaughter and the killing contests will continue. But coyotes -- ever faster, ever stronger, still yipping and howling at the moon -- will prevail. "Coyotes," Crabtree says, "are the ultimate icon of success and defiance of humans who think they can control nature."

Mike Finkel is the author of Alpine Circus, which will be published this fall. His last article for Audubon, a profile of tree-canopy researcher Nalini Nadkarni, appeared in the September-October issue.