Old Man Coyote by Juanita Amero
Coyote you say? Now what would this coyote article be doing in the wolf Outlaw section? Alas, he is much at home here and deserves his space in remembrance alongside his canine cousin the Wolf. Oddly enough, it is probably the elimination of the competing predator, the wolf, that has led to Coyote’s success.
And therefore he has earned his time in the literary spotlight.
The coyote can also be given the title of outlaw and live up to it proudly. Also known as the prairie wolf, and more recently the “brush wolf”, the newer eastern version, the coyote remains mysterious and unrelenting. It is surprising to the casual reader that so little is known about him. Although wildlife managers and biologists can tell you with amazing accuracy, how many deer, elk or moose there are, and probably how many antler buds they have, no one has any idea how many coyotes there are. The closest numbers we seem to ever get is “a lot”.
Missing sheep? Fewer deer? Lost Chihuahua? Missing child? No wolf in the area? You can always blame Coyote. In 1872, Mark Twain wrote the coyote “is a living, breathing allegory of want. He is always hungry, poor, and out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede.” Coyote’s poor reputation springs mostly from his disgusting appetite. He’ll eat just about anything. In a classic study on coyotes in Yellowstone National Park in 1937-38, biologist Adolph Murie studied coyote scat to find out what kind of food they liked. Mostly they ate large and small mammals, as you might expect. But Murie also found: “horse manure, paper, rag, canvas, leather glove, butter wrapper, leather with one piece containing a rivet, mouse nest material, seven inches of curtain, two square inches of rubber, tinfoil, shoestring, paint covered rag, eight inches of rope, three square inches of towel, two pieces of a shirt, botfly larvae, canvas, a gunny sack and isinglass.” In other words, Coyote is the tiger shark known as a bottom feeder of land animals.
He began in the west as a canine similar in size to the fox, but continued eastward gaining fame, intelligence and size and now takes up residence in our eastern coastal communities. Here his size and color are an almost eerie replication of the timber/grey wolf. In a world of much talk about animal extinction, the coyote is truly a wonder of procreation! I guess the coyote would be the wolf cousin that kind of outstays his welcome, never leaves just keeps coming back. I have relatives like that…just kidding! Although western stockmen have been able to eliminate nearly all the predators that threaten their business like wolves, bears, foxes, even eagles. Coyote just hangs in there. Humans have tried to poison coyotes with the toxin Compound 1080, to no avail. In fact lamb losses to coyotes actually increased during the period of 1080 use. Poisoned baits taught coyotes eating things they hadn’t killed themselves could be dangerous, so Compound 1080 just helped evolve a more efficient predator.
Biologists have speculated competition from wolves is what originally had restricted the coyote’s range to west. But now evidence arising from Yellowstone National Park where coyotes still are presumably dining on paint covered rags suggests the best way to keep coyote populations down, is to keep wolf populations healthy.
Gray wolves were reintroduced back into Yellowstone about 75 years after they had been eliminated by the livestock industry. Biologist Bob Crabtree has been studying the relationship between the two species. Here he quotes:
In over 200 wolf-coyote interactions observed since 1995,” he wrote in the journal Yellowstone Science, “we have witnessed wolves killing coyotes 23 times. It appears that the killing of coyotes by wolves during the winters of 1996-97 and 1997-98 resulted in a 50 percent reduction in coyote numbers and significantly reduced pack size without subsequent recolonization of traditional coyote territories.”
In other words, wolves came in and ruined the coyote’s neighborhood. They did what trappers, poisons, hunters, aerial gunning, killing pups in their dens and roundups have failed to do. They reduced coyote numbers and, subsequently, livestock predation. Interesting turn of events eh? Ranchers have spent more than a century eliminating wolves from the mountains and plains. The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those wolf-eliminators must wonder if the actions of their ancestors may have been a bad mistake. So the outlaw wolf and the outlaw coyote are closely entwined legends of the wild.
In an Indian lore, Coyote was the Trickster, who rebelled against authority. In Crow legend, Coyote creates the world: In one way or another, everything that exists or that is happening goes back to Old Man Coyote. Join us next time when we go back to the world of legendary wolves to recount the life of a female wolf known to some as “Phantom”.