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coyote in rain

A coyote is reflected in a puddle of water as it trots through the Arizona Daily Star parking lot on  Jan. 31 in Tucson.

The other day as I was driving down Woody Mountain Road on my way to the Arboretum and a coyote trotted across the road in front of me. We were right by Sinclair Wash, and I stopped the car to get a good look at him. He stopped when I did, and we eyed each other. He was gorgeous—and looked huge with his full winter coat. When I stepped on the gas, he began to trot down the wash, looking over his shoulder at me.

A great start to my work day.

I see coyotes all the time, and their behavior fascinates me. They are intelligent and curious, and I’m happy to have them at the Arboretum to keep our robust rodent population in check. I’ve seen them when I’ve been hiking, and I hear them yipping and barking often out in Doney Park. Most seem quite fearful of humans—a good response, as Arizona has an open season on them. Our Arboretum coyotes are much less skittish; they have probably figured out that they are safe and welcomed.

Coyotes are a “generalist” species, highly adaptable to humans and able to thrive almost anywhere; some 2,000 call the city of Chicago home, according to a 2015 article published in the Chicago Tribune.

And as omnivores, they will eat almost anything; here in northern Arizona, they commonly eat small rodents, juniper berries, pine nuts, and grasshoppers. A study conducted by the Urban Coyote Research Project found the most common food items to be small rodents (42 percent), fruit (23 percent), deer (22 percent), and rabbit (18 percent). Coyotes have now colonized every state in the US; they are often the top predator in many areas since wolves were exterminated throughout much of the continental US.

I am not opposed to subsistence hunting, but I was deeply disturbed to read about the upcoming Coyote Calling Contest taking place in Coconino County. Participants mimic the sounds of distressed prey, and when predators show up, they are shot and killed and left to rot. Prizes are awarded for the most killed, largest coyote, etc. The rationale for these sorts of contests is that they protect wildlife. In northern Arizona, these killing contests are supposed to help pronghorn populations, since coyotes will prey on pronghorn fawns.

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What do wildlife biologists have to say about these contests? Well, they don’t work.

Landscapes and ecosystems have what is called “carrying capacity.” What that means is that populations of animals rise and fall in correlation to food supply. Coyotes (and wolves) actually have the ability to adjust their litter sizes based on food abundance and population density.

So here is the reality: If these killing contests remove coyotes from the landscape, those left will just have bigger litters to fill in the gaps. As for pronghorns, their populations will fluctuate as a result of drought (less grass), and habitat loss. A coyote pack dependent on pronghorn fawns will either find another food source, or adjust by having fewer pups.

There is no scientific justification for predator killing contests. Long before humans came on the landscape, predators and prey lived side-by-side for millennia. Predators make prey stronger and healthier. Several states and other jurisdictions are now calling for bans on predator killing contests. What about Coconino County?

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Lynne Nemeth is Executive Director of The Arboretum at Flagstaff. She can be reached at Lynne.Nemeth@thearb.org.

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