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Coyote America author Dan Flores lays out why we should know more about the resilient native canid

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Coyote populations actually rise when pressured.
  • Coyote populations actually rise when pressured.
The list of things we as a society don’t know or understand about coyotes is pretty long, says Dan Flores, author of the 2016 book Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History.

From confusion over what they eat (rodents primarily) to which states they live in (all except Hawaii) and which U.S. cities have coyote-management studies underway (all of the majors, including Denver, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles), the lives of coyotes have been, and continue to be, a bit of a mystery even though the animals are distinctly American.

“The canid family itself is a product of North American evolution. All the canids around the world came out of an evolutionary strain that began in Western North America about 5.3 million years ago,” says the Northern New Mexico-based author. “Many of these other animals — the jackals, the wild dogs, the dingoes, the grey wolf, in fact — ended up leaving North America, crossing the land bridges, and going to other parts of the world, but the coyote is one of the canids out of this evolutionary strain that never left here. It’s been an indigenous animal.”

Indigenous, and sacred. At the founding of the United States, when coyote territory was still limited mostly to the American West, the animal had already been considered sacred to the native people for about 10,000 years. At some point in the 19th century, explorers and government officials decided that coyotes were close enough to wolves (who they saw functioning as a threat to human enterprise) that they started a process of eliminating them from the continent before ever doing any science on them. And it’s a process of elimination that’s still happening in a variety of ways, on both small- and large-scale levels.

Since publication of his book, Flores says he’s heard people say some pretty ridiculous things about coyotes.

“I had a guy who holds coyote-hunting contests say that coyotes in his view were ‘a threat to everything and everybody all the time.’ And therefore we should be waging all-out war against them. Shooting them on sight. Poisoning them on sight. And, you know, I guess I probably thought that that kind of thinking had maybe gone out 30 or 40 years ago. But I realized that that’s not the case.”
Dan Flores - COURTESY DAN FLORES
  • Courtesy Dan Flores
  • Dan Flores
It’s also not the case at the federal level. In Flores’ book, he interviews scientists with the USDA’s Wildlife Services who, he writes, use taxpayer dollars to subsidize agribusiness by killing about 70,000 to 80,000 coyotes a year via M-44 cyanide bombs, aerial gunning and leg-trapping. After an incident last March when a USDA M-44 impacted a boy and killed his pet dog in Idaho, the department is reviewing policies and procedures for the bombs, but continues to spend millions a year killing coyotes and other “nuisance” animals.

Perhaps one of the least understood facts about coyotes is that killing them only makes the larger pack stronger. One of the adaptations that coyotes have, Flores explains in his book, is that whenever their populations are pressured, their litter sizes go up. Typically, a litter is five to six pups, but when their populations are suppressed, the litters grow to 12 to 16 pups. “You can reduce the numbers of coyotes in a given area by 70 percent, but the next summer their population will be back to the original number,” he writes.

“The simple equation is, after a century of attempting to exterminate them, the result has been that there are more coyotes than there ever were, and they are now spread across twice the land mass of North America that they were when we started trying to wipe them out. We’ve not only failed to win that war against them, they’ve basically taken over the very ground we were standing on,” Flores says.

Usually when we direct our attention to something in the natural world, he adds, it’s done pretty fast, but this is a completely counterintuitive environmental story. 
“This is the rare instance where we have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at coyotes and the result has been to produce more of them across a larger land mass than have ever existed.”

And so, he adds, what we need to understand most about coyotes is how to live with them, in both rural areas and cities. From keeping a close eye on small pets, to not feeding them scraps, there are many easy ways we can improve the human-coyote relationship.

“The coyotes already know how to do it. They know how to coexist with us. They’ve been doing it for a thousand years. But we’re the ones who are going to have to learn how to do it. … What we want to do is to keep coyotes thinking that we’re a little bit too weird to trust, because we want to keep them wild. We don’t want to let them become too comfortable at being around us.”

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