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.

 

The Right Metaphor for Prairie Restoration

Prairie restoration can be a powerful tool for grassland conservation, but we’re not taking advantage of its full potential.  Too often, we think and talk about prairie restoration (aka prairie reconstruction) in the wrong way.  Instead of trying to restore an ecosystem, we try to reproduce history.

Nelson Winkel, land manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, harvests grass seed using a pull-behind seed stripper.

I was in Washington D.C. a couple weeks ago and visited Ford’s theater, where President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.  After the death of the president, the building went through drastic changes, including being completely gutted after a partial collapse of the interior.  By the time the decision was made to restore the building for use as a historic site, the National Park Service basically had to start from scratch.  Regardless, through painstaking research and a lot of hard work, the theater was rebuilt to closely resemble Ford’s theater of 1865.

The rebuilding of Ford’s theater is a decent metaphor for much of the early prairie restoration (or reconstruction) work dating back to the 1930’s in North America – as well for some of the restoration work that continues today.   In the case of prairie restoration, someone identifies a tract of land that used to be prairie but has been converted into something completely different (usually cropland), and tries their best to restore what was there before it was converted.  Just as in the restoration of Ford’s theater, the prairie restoration process requires lot of research and hard work to identify, find, and reassemble what had been there before.

Unfortunately, the Ford’s theater approach has turned out to be a poor fit for prairie restoration.  Prairies aren’t buildings that have specific architectural plans and well-defined pieces that can be collected and assembled to create a pre-defined end product.  Prairies are dynamic ecosystems that are constantly changing and evolving, and their components include organisms that interact with each other in complex ways.  Trying to recreate a prairie that looks and functions just as it used to – especially on a small isolated tract of land – is nearly impossible.

Reseeded prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands Restoration Project in Indiana. If the plant community today looks different than it did before it was farmed, is that really a failure of the restoration project?

That doesn’t mean small scale prairie restoration is a bad idea.  I think reestablishing vegetation that is similar to what was at a site many years ago can have tremendous historic and educational value, and can also provide important habitat for many grassland species.  Where this kind of prairie restoration falls flat is when we expect too much from it.  It’s really easy to find glaring differences between the restored prairie and what we know or think used to be there – soil characteristics are different, insect and wildlife species are missing, plant species are too common or too rare, etc.  These “failures” have led some people in conservation and academia to become disillusioned with the whole concept of prairie restoration.

In reality, prairie restoration has proven to be very successful, and is a tremendous tool for grassland conservation.  We just need to find and apply a better metaphor.

A Better Metaphor for Ecological Restoration

Unlike efforts to restore old buildings, prairie restoration projects should not be aimed at recreating something exactly as it existed long ago.  Instead, effective prairie restoration should be like rebuilding a city after large portions of it are destroyed in a major disaster.  When reconstructing a metropolitan area, replicating individual structures is much less important than restoring the processes the inhabitants of the city rely on.  The people living and working in a city depend upon the restoration of power, transportation, communication, and other similar functions.  Those people don’t care whether roads, power lines, or communication towers are put back exactly as they were before – they just want to be able to get the supplies and information they need, and to travel around so they can to do their jobs and survive.  Restoration success is not measured by how much the rebuilt areas resemble the preexisting areas, but by whether or not the city and its citizens can survive and thrive again.

Similarly, restoration of fragmented prairie landscapes should not be an attempt to recreate history.  It should be an attempt to rebuild the viability of the species – and, more importantly, the processes – that make the prairie ecosystem function and thrive.  Success shouldn’t be measured at the scale of individual restoration projects, but at the scale of the resultant complex of remnant and restored prairies.  Are habitat patches sufficiently large that area-sensitive birds can nest successfully?  Are insects and animals able to travel through that prairie complex to forage, mate, and disperse?  Are ecological processes like seed dispersal and pollination occurring between the various patches of habitat?  When a species’ population is wiped out in one part of the prairie because of a fire, disease, or other factor, is it able to recolonize from nearby areas?

Pollination is an example of an important process that drives prairie function. Increasing the size and/or connectivity of prairies by restoring areas around and between prairie fragments can enhance the viability of pollination and other processes.

At first glance, choosing the appropriate metaphor for prairie restoration may seem insignificant compared to other challenges we face in grassland conservation.  However, if we’re going to successfully restore the viability of fragmented prairies, we can’t afford to waste time and effort worrying about whether or not we’ve matched pre-European settlement condition, or any other historical benchmark.  Instead, we need to focus on patching the essential systems back together.

After all, we’re not building for the past, we’re building for the future.

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Read more on this subject…

– An earlier blog post about using prairie restoration as a landscape scale conservation tool.

– A prairie restoration project case study, with ideas about how to measure its success.

– Some recent early attempts we’ve made to measure restoration success by looking at the responses of bees and ants.

– A post about the importance and definition of ecological resilience in prairies.