Killing wolves seemed like a good idea – but then came the coyote

Chicago: On a cold, miserable morning in May, Stan Gehrt trod across an open field as wind and rain blew in his face. He was leading a team of wildlife biologists on a mission to find an animal with a gift for not being seen.

The team didn't have to travel far. A female coyote had made a den within sight of Chicago's skyline. They were only "about five kilometres" from America's busiest airport, O'Hare International, Gehrt said as he advanced toward the den, wind howling through his mobile phone's microphone during an interview.

The reduction in numbers of American red wolves – pictured here at the Endangered Wolf Centre in Missouri – have allowed coyote numbers to flourish. Credit:AP

Like every state east of the Mississippi River, Illinois is worried about its growing population of city-slicker coyotes. The animals surged from their original habitat in the west after what many now consider a colossal mistake – government-sanctioned predator removal programs that virtually wiped out red and gray wolves.

Coyotes have been taking over the territory of wolves, their mortal enemies, ever since. It is a textbook example of what the recent United Nations biodiversity report said: Humans are creating chaos for wildlife, placing a million species in danger of going extinct.

The report warned that the mismanagement of nature would come back to haunt humans in a variety of ways, including in the form of food and water shortages, and disruptions by invasive species.

As the Trump Administration seeks to strip away legal protections for the last remaining wolves, state officials are contending with the consequences of a massacre carried out without regard to science.

People were fascinated when coyotes started showing up in Maryland, but complaints about nuisance animals increased as the coyote population grew. The public's enchantment changed to "I do not want this animal in my neighbourhood," the state Department of Natural Resources said. "Few … wildlife species evoke as widespread and passionate disdain by the general public as coyotes."

The situation was worse for native wildlife. Coyotes became the top predator and changed the ecosystem. Maryland's red foxes were pushed to the edge of their territory, and their numbers declined.

Wildlife officials across the east are trying to reduce coyote populations with tactics similar to those used to destroy wolves, but the cash bounties, hunting contests and unlimited daily harvests are not working on an animal that is more resilient.

A wild coyote that ended up in a bathroom at the Music City Centre in Nashville, Tennessee, this year. Animal control officers used a catch pole to capture the coyote and later released it in a wooded area.Credit:AP

Coyotes have a unique way of responding to population pressure: They make more coyotes. Kill half a million one year, experts say, and that many will pop up the next.

Early American settlers started killing wolves, mountain lions and other apex predators centuries ago, largely to protect livestock. Modern developers mounted a far more ambitious effort to remove wolves for urban expansion, which accelerated their decline by erasing large portions of their habitat.

In the process, humans unwittingly opened a gateway for one of the most resilient predators in the wild.

"You've probably heard the cliche that nature abhors a vacuum," said DeLene Beeland, author of The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America's Other Wolf. "Of course they're going to come in; it's open habitat."

As early as the mid-to-late 1940s, coyote populations started to creep upward in the Midwest. Early settlers "would never have known anything about a coyote," Gehrt said. But now, residents in Chicago, New York, Washington, Charlotte and Atlanta are living with them, even if most people don't know it. (His group never did find the female denning near O'Hare.)

By the 1990s, coyotes had pushed all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, establishing a presence in Virginia and the Carolinas. They roamed as far north as New Hampshire and as far south as Florida, places where they didn't exist 50 years ago.

Coyotes have even ventured into Mexico and Central America. They recently became the first new animal species in a thousand years known to cross the isthmus into Panama, where camera traps spotted them heading toward South America.

"How do you limit coyotes? You don't," said Gehrt, director of the Coyote Research Project in Cook County, where there are an estimated 4000 coyotes. "We haven't been able to do that, and people have tried for a very long time."

Unlike wolves, coyotes don't need to bring down a grown deer, elk or bison to survive. They'll eat fruit. Or a rabbit. Or swipe an occasional fawn. Mostly they eat rodents, Gehrt said. "Not rats or mice. Natural rodents like vole, they love those. They'll give up anything to eat a vole."

"I think … what we've learned in general is the removal of large apex predators have unintended consequences," Gehrt said.

Now Illinois is trying the manage coyotes with science.

"Every year we try to locate the den where the coyotes are trying to raise a litter," he said. "If we are successful in finding the den, we can extract the pups, microchip them, and put them back."

But a scientific approach is not being used in every state.

In South Carolina, Republican state Senator Stephen Goldfinch issued a call to arms. Goldfinch did not respond to requests for comment, but he told WMBF News in Myrtle Beach that killing coyotes should be South Carolina's top priority.

"The state's perspective is every coyote needs to be a dead coyote. Trap them, shoot them … however you want to get rid of them," Goldfinch said. "This is now about going to war with the coyotes. They're eating our cats and our dogs and our deer and turkeys."

Coyote carcasses hang from branches on a tree in the middle of a field in West Augusta, Virginia.Credit:AP

Science doesn't support the last comment, Gehrt said. There are isolated cases of coyotes killing pets, but that is extremely rare. "That's another case of misinterpreting things."

Cats "avoid coyotes like crazy," Gehrt said. "When we started radio collaring cats in our coyote territories, we assumed there would be massive carnage, but actually we saw little predation because the cats avoided the areas coyotes were using."

Scientists are finding it hard to overcome attitudes about coyotes shaped by fables, cartoons and movies in which the animals or their wolf relatives scheme to eat little girls, stalk a charming roadrunner and with a single bite transform humans into hairy monsters.

In rural North Carolina, landowners seeking to end a federal program to reintroduce red wolves to the wild went door-to-door saying the animals were dangerous.

The program's opponents claimed, without much evidence, that the wolves kill livestock. They said they robbed hunters of sport by killing too many deer, even though red wolf droppings showed that deer are a tiny part of their diet. The opponents even claimed that the wolves were in fact coyotes, until a study by National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in April debunked that assertion.

Red wolves once roamed nearly the entire south-east and portions of the south-west.

"Originally, over most of their range, red wolves didn't interact with coyotes, because there weren't any coyotes," said Roland Kays, a researcher and associate professor at North Carolina State University.

In their heyday, the larger red wolves ruled through intimidation. A coyote that showed its face in their territory often ended up dead. "Animals will avoid an area because it's risky," Kays said.

Western gray wolf tracks in the north Keating Wildlife Management Unit in Baker County. Credit:AP

Humans, a more fearsome predator, altered the landscape.

At first the change was subtle, barely noticeable. Starting in the 1930s and 1940s, federal officials at the US Biological Survey, the agency responsible for killing the vast majority of wolves, reported that their numbers had dropped dramatically.

"But in the '50s, there was a spike upwards," Beeland said. She suspects that hunters who were unfamiliar with coyotes mistook them for wolves.

As red wolves declined, they stopped fighting coyotes and mated with them. Fearing their extinction, the US Fish and Wildlife Service rescued a few genetically pure red wolves that remained in Louisiana and Texas in the late 1970s and put them in zoos.

With red wolves behind bars, coyotes pushed east.

Goldfinch wants to halt their march with legislation that would allow an unlimited number of coyotes to be killed year round. It would allow hunting contests and local bounties.

That won't work, said Jonathan Way, founder of Eastern Coyote/Coywolf Research in Massachusetts: "All told, 500,000 coyotes per year are killed by hunters, state agencies and federal wildlife services. The reason why they still come back is because of their body size. They can survive on just about anything."

In Georgia, where the coyote population grew from near zero to thousands after the turn of the century, officials backed away from Goldfinch's approach.

Georgia fought coyotes with hunting events that offered prizes for the most animals killed. When that failed, the state turned to educational programs to raise public awareness.

"We wanted to remind people of all the tools they have to keep them away," said Charlie Killmaster, the state's deer and feral-hog biologist. "A number of states have shown that government-sponsored programs to eradicate coyote populations are huge money pits that result in failure."

It's not too late to learn from the past, he said.

"Looking back on our predecessors that were anti-predator in general … that created this," Killmaster said. "Absolutely they paved the way for coyotes to come in."

The Washington Post

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