Coyote

In the Red Hills of Kansas, a coyote is out standing in his field.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, courtesy

Dear Ranger: It seems like everyone has a strong opinion about coyotes. Some people love them as a symbol of the wild deserts, yet others can’t stand them. What are the facts about these animals? — Pawzzled

Dear Pawzzled: Few animals cause as much disagreement as the coyote. On one hand they are icons of the West, literally the stuff of legends. At the same time, these wild canines are in constant conflict with ranchers and farmers.

Anyone who has spent time away from city noise has probably heard the yipping, yapping, yodeling howl of this famous (or infamous) animal. I remember hearing them in the hollows of northwest Arkansas as a boy.

Indigenous legends speak of coyote the trickster, an intelligent character who not only deceives and makes trouble, but also questions authority and teaches valuable lessons. In Navajo and Puebloan stories, coyote’s mischievous unwillingness to obey rules led to stars filling the once-empty night sky. In a Yavapai tale, coyote placed a piece of the sun on a pile of rocks — and created Sunset Crater Volcano.

It is hard to think of the Southwest at all without coyotes coming to mind. After all, we even name sports teams after them.

And why wouldn’t these incredible survivalists capture our attention and leave us amazed? Coyotes evolved in the American West around one million years ago. Canis latrans have been on Earth five times longer than Homo sapiens. They have more than a dozen calls, and they can distinguish one another’s voices just as we do. They control rodent populations, reducing the occurrence of diseases such as hantavirus and plague. They adapt and thrive whether their ecosystem is hot or cold, wet or dry, completely wild or packed with people. Whatever else people may think of coyotes, these all-American canines are survivors.

Unfortunately, however, over the last 200 years that has occasionally created conflict between our two species. Coyotes are predators, and easy prey are attractive. People have filled vast areas with millions of docile, easy-to-hunt cattle and sheep. We also have a habit of putting our pets outside and not watching over them. These make tempting targets for wild hunters.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2015 coyotes preyed on almost 117,000 head of cattle worth over $52 million. That is a lot of money, time, effort and frustration for ranchers.

But as humans have tried to reduce coyote populations through hunting and trapping, their numbers have actually increased. Stable coyote family groups limit their own breeding, with the dominant pair producing only one litter each year. But when the pack is threatened, other members begin to breed, too, and their litters get larger. No matter what humans do to lower coyote populations, their numbers always recover. In response to 200 years of human hunting and trapping, coyotes have expanded their range and are now found in every state except Hawaii, as well as in Canada and Mexico.

In fact, only one thing has ever successfully controlled coyote populations: wolves.

Coyotes cause controversy for many reasons, but ultimately it is because people love them, hate them, and are not really not sure how to live alongside them.

So, how do we live with them? How can we learn to co-exist with America’s most successful canine predator?

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Some ranchers are getting creative, mixing donkeys and llamas with their herds to scare away coyotes. Livestock guardian dogs like Great Pyrenees, Anatolian shepherds, and komondors have also proven effective.

Here are some things you can do:

-- Never feed coyotes. Keep trash and pet food secured so wildlife won't perceive people as a source of nourishment.

-- Keep a close eye on pets and small children, leash your dogs while hiking, and keep cats inside.

-- Make coyotes wary of you. If one comes near, make a ruckus. Wave your arms, shout, blow a whistle or shake a can full of coins.

Coyotes are not bad, evil or mean. They can be a great source of inspiration and they are important members of our natural community. They certainly can be troublemakers. But with a little effort and creativity from us, they can also be good neighbors.

Case Griffing is the lead interpretive park ranger at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. He has been a park ranger since 2004 and finds profound inspiration and wisdom in the balance and complexity of nature.

The NPS/USFS Interpretive Partnership is a unique agreement between the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service to provide interpretive ranger walks and talks in the Flagstaff area throughout the summer.

Submit questions for the Ask a Ranger weekly column to askaranger@gmail.com.

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