The Much Maligned Coyote

Here in Nebraska, we’ve lost most of our largest predators.  Bears and wolves are gone (excepting rare long-distance wanderers).  Mountain lions are making a slow comeback in the northern and western parts of Nebraska, but the agricultural character and fragmented nature of our state makes it difficult to imagine a much stronger presence of large predators than we have right now.  That’s not a critique – it’s just reality.  It’s difficult to know what effect the absence of those predators has on our wildlife and natural landscapes, but based on what we know from research elsewhere, it’s surely significant.  Throughout the world, and across a wide range of habitat types, major predators stimulate complex cascades of impacts far beyond simply suppressing the populations of their favored prey species.  In fact, the diversity and abundance of many plant, invertebrate, and wildlife species have been shown to decline dramatically when dominant predators disappear.

Illustration by Kim Tri

Coyote illustration by Kim Tri, one of our Hubbard Fellows and, obviously, a talented artist.

Today, in the absence of wolves and bears, coyotes have stepped into the role of top mammalian predator across much of Nebraska.  It’s hard to know if they are as effective as their larger counterparts at maintaining ecosystem function, but there is strong scientific evidence for the strong and positive impacts coyotes have on a number of other grassland species.  Much of the research on this topic was published 15-20 years ago, but few people seem to be familiar with it.  In fact, rather than being celebrated for their importance, coyotes are widely reviled, and often shot on sight, by many (most?) rural citizens across much of prairie regions of North America.

There is much unfortunate irony in the vilification of coyotes.  One common coyote narrative is that coyotes are hard on nesting birds, especially game species like pheasants, quail, turkeys, grouse, and ducks.  In reality, coyotes feed mainly on rodents, and the major predators of birds and their nests tend to be smaller animals, including foxes, raccoons, and cats (especially feral house cats).  Coyotes are large and aggressive enough to intimidate or kill those “mesopredators”, keeping their numbers low and driving them into areas where coyotes spend the least time, such as wooded draws, farmsteads, and even surburbia.  In fact, numerous studies have documented detrimental impacts to bird populations ranging from songbirds to ducks and grouse when coyote numbers are suppressed and mesopredator populations swell.

One of the most dramatic studies of coyote impacts on the structure and function of ecological communities took place on 20,000 hectares of west Texas land back in the 1990’s.  Researchers halved the number of coyotes in one portion of the study area and left the population alone elsewhere.  Within a year of coyote control, the area with fewer coyotes experienced higher populations of bobcats, badgers, and gray foxes.  Perhaps as a result, 11 of the 12 rodent species in that area disappeared, leaving only a skyrocketing population of kangaroo rats.  Jackrabbits also tripled their numbers in the coyote control area, much to the chagrin of ranchers, since jackrabbits compete with livestock for forage.

Another great coyote illustration by Kim Tri.

Another great coyote illustration by Kim Tri.

Speaking of ranchers, many tend not to be coyote fans, in large part because coyotes are sometimes hard on livestock.  Sheep ranchers can suffer big losses to coyotes if they don’t actively protect sheep with dogs, overnight enclosures, and other strategies.  Cattle ranchers can also have trouble with coyotes killing livestock, especially just-born calves.  Coyotes are very good at killing young deer fawns – a great reason for prairie enthusiasts to be coyote fans, by the way – but some transfer that skill to calves as well.  While any self-respecting cow can protect her calf from coyotes under most circumstances, even the toughest mother is weakened enough by the process of giving birth that she is vulnerable to a quick sneak attack.

Unfortunately, the response to livestock losses is often the indiscriminate killing of whatever coyotes ranchers can find.  Research has shown that kind of “coyote control” to be largely ineffective, in part because it usually fails to kill the individuals actually causing problems.  For example, a fourteen year study showed that almost every sheep killed by coyotes was taken by the “alpha pair” in the pack’s social structure.  Those alpha animals are also the wiliest and most difficult to kill.  Furthermore, of course, in the unlikely event that coyote control efforts succeed at suppressing the population in an area, the results might not turn out in favor of the rancher.  Higher numbers of raccoons and foxes, not to mention jackrabbits, along with fewer ducks, grouse, and quail, might take the thrill out of the temporary victory.

Even if coyotes gain wider recognition for their positive effects on natural systems, however, the relationship between coyote and human is bound to be complicated.  As we continue to alter their habitat, coyotes will continue to adapt and survive as best they can.  At times, that will bring them into conflict with us.  It is understandable, for example, that a rancher needs to address livestock losses, and sometimes that could mean tracking down and killing the individual coyote(s) responsible.  However, that kind of careful, targeted response is much different (and more effective) than current broad, indiscriminate campaigns against an animal whose bad reputation is largely based on innuendo and misinformation.

Ideally, seeing coyote tracks on their property would be a positive experience for landowners.

Ideally, seeing coyote tracks on a property would be a positive experience for landowners.

Coyotes and other predators play critically important roles in grassland ecosystems.  It’s easy to understand how they directly suppress populations of their primary prey species.  However, as we continue to study predators, we find more and more of the kind of indirect impacts that ripple through ecological systems in ways that are difficult to predict.  While it seems unlikely that wolves and bears will ever return to prominence in Nebraska or most other prairie regions of North America, coyotes may be able to cover at least some of the ecological roles those larger predators once played.

But only if we let them.

 

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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25 Responses to The Much Maligned Coyote

  1. sgsterrett says:

    Thank you for this post; I learned a lot.

  2. Trish Murphy says:

    Beautiful paintings! The coyote leaping on the vole is one of the best art pieces I’ve seen this year.

  3. lauraluh says:

    As a landowner I used to like hearing coyotes at night. This year however they got bold and managed to kill 3 turkeys, 9 chickens and 2 Holstein calves (pasturing our neighbor’s cows). Makes you feel differently when all you find of a new calf is a hairy leg. And you’re right about the knee jerk reaction – the State trapper came out and got about 4-5 coyotes but all juveniles. I still hate the killing contests we see around here but we will try doing some hunting this winter ourselves. As well as keeping the poultry flock in an enclosure instead of free ranging. By the way the 6 calves we got from our Highland cows all made it – horns may make a difference :-).

    • James McGee says:

      There is a guy in Indiana that runs a non-profit called Wolf Park. He said he has lots of small livestock on his property and they are never bothered by the coyotes. The coyotes visit the top of a nearby hill. After the coyotes see the pack of 50 wolves in the enclosure the coyotes never come any closer.

    • Isabel Cohen says:

      I am sorry for your livestock losses, but wish you would re-think having cows. They not only devastate the land and water access they have, but they deserve a better life. Coyotes have been around much longer than we have. They deserve to live just like the wolves, mountain lions,bighorn sheep and any other things brave enough to still want to be wild. In Nebraska, we have contests to kill off the last few of whatever is left and reward and encourage children to enter the competition. What does this say about our future? Barren lands that are finally done sustaining herds of anything and crops of anything? I wonder.

      • James McGee says:

        You aren’t going to convince anyone to change their ways by telling them to stop making a living. Most ranchers are responsible because it simply does not make business sense to ruin the very thing that provides them their living. Likewise, most hunters follow the law and do not over harvest so there will be something to hunt next year. An educational approach is always received better than criticism.

        • Isabel Cohen says:

          You obviously don’t live in Nebraska where they have contests to kill mountain lions, bighorn sheep and just about any other wild thing they can find. Soon, James, people will stop eating meat altogether and then we won’t be having a conversation about the wild things. If any of them are left in the wild, they will take back over their territories that people in the midwest have been farming for years, including our beloved prairies, which are for the most part, long gone.

          • James McGee says:

            If people stop eating meat and the wild things “take back over their territories that people … have been farming” then what are people going to eat? What do you think is going to happen to bring about this change? Is this expectation reasonable?

          • Isabel Cohen says:

            Haven’t you heard? Meat causes heart problems. Especially eating a lot of it.

    • guarddogblog says:

      We keep Livestock Guardian Dogs (aka Livestock Protection Dogs) for this reason.

  4. Jim in IA says:

    An excellent piece. Thanks for the info.

  5. Stew Magnuson says:

    one of your best columns. I’m sharing it widely

  6. Very interesting for me, especially about mesopredators. And another lesson in the complexity of consequences and the human impulse to jump to too-simple solutions.
    Brock

  7. steve says:

    Walt Davis, a rancher and excellent speaker at many grazing conference says he never kills coyotes unless he finds one causing the problem. If your coyotes aren’t a problem, killing them only opens the territory for ones that could. Another example of human ignorance causing the problem that we blame on other things we don’t understand.

  8. randomtruth says:

    Nicely said. Another tidbit you can add – it’s been shown that culling can often have the completely opposite effect, and generate a population bloom in the targeted species, such as coyotes. It’s the equivalent of increasing prey abundance for the remaining coyotes in the area, and the females get healthy and all have large litters. Resulting in a bunch of “un-wily” juvenile coyotes around getting into trouble. Rinse, repeat.

  9. W Dan Tarpley says:

    I like seeing them and shooting them when opportunity comes. After studying the issue in college, they usually take care of themselves and other than using bait and poison man has little effect of their population. There population is cyclical with their pray. The population goes up and the bitches will have larger litters when prey is abundant, when prey is scarce they tend to have few pups and even none. They truly are one of the most resilient critters around.

  10. Herb Abel says:

    Good description of an aspect of the complexity of the prairie ecosystem. But what is the basis of the parenthetical aside that deer are negative components or at least overabundance positive or neutral agents?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Herb, sorry for the delay in this response. Deer can be pretty hard on a suite of prairie plants that they repeatedly browse on. This is particularly true in more eastern Tallgrass prairies and where deer are overly abundant. Deer damage from overpopulated herds is in the top tier of ecological threats to ecosystems in many places. I’m not sure coyotes have a significant impact on deer numbers but they certainly take a number of fawns.

  11. Bob Stine says:

    We see occasional coyotes here in the metro DC area — lots more foxes. I don’t mind them, except that they will kill your pets if they get the chance.

  12. Luddene Perry says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t think knee jerk reactions help any issue. The bottom line is always balance, and there is no doubt that the rise in the human population has disrupted the natural balance. The mouse population has exploded this year – maybe more rain helped? And I can’t help thinking that a coyote family nearby would decrease the numerous rabbits that continue to destroy garden plants.

    I recently re-read my 4th great-grandfather’s book: A Pioneer life; or 30 Years a Hunter, published in 1854. The amount of wildlife his family encountered in central Pennsylvania during the 1790s is mind-boggling. It is truly hard to comprehend the decline of wildlife that has happen since until you understand the numbers that were present then. He talks about dozens of “panthers”, large herds of elks, and bears in the 100s. On the other hand, while I know the value of snakes and go out of my way to provide a place for them on my land, the thought of my ancestors encountering 100s of rattlesnakes at a time does give one pause.

  13. Amen and absolutely. We lost some chickens to a mother coyote last year and earlier this year. That was OUR problem because our mesh fence wasn’t complete. With the completion of the fencing – no chickens lost.

    People are always asking us about coyotes and saying how they “must be a problem”. No. They aren’t. They stay outside of the perimeter and I watch them catch rodents in the surrounding fields. We have a respect for each other. These are the same people that try to argue that coyotes decimate deer herds and don’t want to hear “coyotes primarily eat rodents”.

    I let those folks remain bewildered. Me, I enjoy watching the coyotes hunt in the fields and look forward to hearing them hunt and call during the evenings.

  14. When we moved to our home, we were warned not to leave small dogs in the yard unattended. (We don’t have any dogs.) At least suburban legend was that the coyotes might kill the pets. We hear them in the neighborhood from time to time, and Jim (in IA) saw one in the yard once. Frankly I’m glad they’re around.

    • Isabel Cohen says:

      No one in their right mind leaves their dogs unattended in their yards unless they are big and mean! Coyotes have a right to live too, but most of their habitat, at least in NE, is long gone!

  15. guarddogblog says:

    Reblogged this on Guard Dog Blog and commented:
    A well written, thoughtful examination of who and what coyotes are – to us and to the environment.

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