On the Edge: Coyotes survive, thrive despite development
February 15, 2013
By Jan Wassink
Just on the outskirts of town, a pack of coyotes yips and howls.
Their ruckus sends the neighborhood dogs into a frenzy, and soon the area is a canine chorus. As quickly as it starts - the yelping stops, and the coyotes seem to vanish. But on the edge of the urban interface, the coyotes have not vanished, they have only silenced their howls.
Tomorrow night they'll be back.
As the edge of urban progression moves farther into the rural areas of Montana, Montanans are coming into contact more and more with an animal that is extremely adaptable to the human's movements. That animal is canis latrans - coyote.
The animals are aptly named: the Latin name Canis Latrans means "barking dog."
Coyotes prey on small mammals and birds and are excellent scavengers. Their populations are booming despite encroaching human development. "They are very adaptable. They can live anywhere, do anything," says Jamie Jonkel, a wildlife biologist who has studied wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, bears and other predators. "They're a real generalist." Jonkel, the son of well-known grizzly researcher Charles Jonkel, has a soft spot for coyotes, partly because of their sonorous nighttime howling and partly because of how well the animal has adapted to humans. "They're a pretty cool species," Jamie Jonkel says. You might not get that kind of response from stockmen, however. "Most of the wool growers just hate them," Jonkel says. "They just can't get rid of them."
One reason for the coyotes' growth is that they tend to have large litters, with anywhere from two to 16 pups per litter. A large percentage of the females - even yearlings - can breed.
Another reason for coyotes' burgeoning growth is that they're no longer heavily trapped or shot. At one time the animal was the favorite target of bounty hunters and trappers, who could fetch up to $80 for a coyote hide. Now the hides fetch only pennies on the dollar, and local buyers quit buying coyote hides when the market went south.
With the hide market nearly gone, coyotes have thrived and have expanded their range in all directions, not just around the urban interface. At Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge west of Kalispell, manager Ray Washtak can sit on his front porch and hear the songs of the coyotes almost every night - and the choir seems to be growing.
"They seem to have increased, but I have no idea how much," he said.
Coyotes feed mainly on smaller mammals, but they might take down larger prey. They might feed on wounded elk calves, but mostly the carnivores prey on meadow voles and rodents at Lost Trail, the newest member of America's national refuge system. Washtak says the coyotes are vital part of the natural world and wildlife refuges. "They fulfill completion of the ecosystem from the predator/prey standpoint," he says.
COYOTES ARE one of a new-world species whose lineage can be traced to the wolf, says Jonkel. Coyotes can be highly socialized and travel in packs, or can travel alone for many years. Coyote pups will be coming out the same time as deer and elk calves and fawns in June.
For some rural residents in Montana, the coyote is reminder of living on the edge of wilderness, a symbol that we are close to something wild. But when the coyotes get into trouble, that's when people call Dave Wallace, owner of Critter Ridder, a wildlife control service.
A trapper by trade, Wallace has seen how the coyote populations have exploded in and around the urban interface.
He gets the calls when a coyote gets into trouble, preying on a house cat, dog or domestic farm animal like chickens. When a landowner wants the coyotes gone, Wallace can respond in a number of ways. The best method of removing coyotes is foothold traps. Since the animals are highly suspicious, they will rarely enter a cage trap where they can be taken alive. "You've got to remove that animal without taking the Springer Spaniel or the family's kitty," Wallace says.
"It's easier said than done."
If coyotes harass or kill livestock, then federal trappers can be brought in to help control them. But other than that, Montana has no formal program to control the populations of canis latrans.
When coyotes kill cats and dogs, Wallace's job is remove the problem animals, but it seems to be a never-ending tide.
"It's nothing new here," he says. "The public is encroaching into areas of high animal numbers. We have high numbers of coyotes, and a major contributor is a lack of interest in trapping these animals for the fur market.
"These animals are going to be more and more of a problem as the area grows."
Even as human development pushes into coyote territory, Wallace figures the coyotes will grow right along with it. "They'll adapt quite readily," he says.
Until the animals become a major problem, though, some people, like Jonkel, will take them as they are, howling and all. "I love to hear their voices," he says.