The Song Dog
There’s more to coyotes than meets the ear.
As evening falls across bronze stalks of winter bluestem, a single, high–pitched yowl rises like a mournful spirit. Within seconds, the lament is joined by a concerto of yips, yaps, and yelps that grows in crescendo, slicing the air in a wild a cappella performance. Call it opera done Okie style. A coyote cantata. A great howling hooha with a feral metronome known only to the songsmiths. If a million-year run on the evolutionary stage is any measure, the coyote song is a Grammy winner. Who among us can resist the urge to stop, for a moment, and listen?
Both maligned and misunderstood, the coyote is as native to Oklahoma as the red dirt itself. It appears in Native American lore dating back centuries. While exploring the Missouri River in 1804, Lewis and Clark noted the small dog-like critter, which they dubbed the “prairie wolf.” Spanish settlers preferred the term “coyote,” and eventually that name stuck. Today, the coyote’s presence in virtually all areas of the lower 48, including the neighborhoods of Tulsa and Oklahoma City, the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Bronx, points to their crafty perseverance. Intelligent and highly adaptable, the coyote’s ability to exist is rarely questioned, but among some circles, their intrinsic value often is.
Killer, pest, varmint, nuisance—for years landowners bandied about these terms as reason enough to seek the final solution. In the early 1900s, a campaign to eradicate the wolf from the U.S. simply tripped off the growth and spread of the coyote. At the request of livestock producers, a federal program kicked off in 1931 advocated killing coyotes in mass numbers. Seventeen years and some 6 million dead coyotes later, the program ended when studies questioned its economic value. Further research casts the light of science on the unwelcome results of extermination: a gob more rats, mice, voles, gophers, rabbits, possums, raccoons, skunks, and snakes.
“When you take a major predator out of the food chain, it makes sense that other animals will populate the gap,” says Jerrod Davis, furbearer biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife. “In Oklahoma, coyotes are apex predators, and they keep these other populations in check.”
Others view coyotes as an ally in an escalating and far more expensive problem for Oklahoma ag producers: feral pigs.
“If we don’t do anything to control the pigs, they’re going to breed more,” says Josh Gaskamp, wildlife and range consultant for the Noble Research Institute.
Coyotes won’t kill enough piglets to put a big dent in the population, he admits, but they are an essential part of the fusion of pig control practices that include trapping, hunting, and predators. More prominent on the coyote menu are whitetail fawns. While some game managers may resent a coyote preying on their future trophy buck, Gaskamp sees the wisdom in natural selection.
“Mother Nature knows which fawns to cull, and coyotes typically take the weak and sick animals first,” he says. “When it comes to wildlife management, coyotes play a role that can’t be replaced by other species, including humans.”
A coyote preying on livestock is a different story. The USDA Wildlife Services Agency tracks the deaths of goats, sheep, cattle, and calves and helps farmers and ranchers resolve wildlife conflicts through lethal and nonlethal means. Scott Alls, director of Wildlife Services Oklahoma, says losses due to predators cost state producers from $500,000 to $1 million annually. That said, Alls stresses not every coyote trotting across a pasture is after your livestock. More important, the willy-nilly killing of coyotes is more likely to increase the problem than reduce it. The reason lies in the coyote’s reproductive biology, he says.
“When you kill a coyote, it often prompts them to have bigger litters to fill in that hole,” Alls explained. “Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the mindset was to target all of the coyotes, and it didn’t work. Instead of a litter of four or five pups, you’d see litters of 15.”
These days, Oklahoma Wildlife Services puts problem wildlife in the crosshairs only after they can prove predation occurred. They prefer a blend of conflict management techniques that include preventive measures—installing electric fencing, penning, or using livestock guarding animals—that are often more successful over the long term.
In Oklahoma, state-licensed hunters and trappers may take coyotes year-round. Landowners enjoy carte blanche to kill coyotes and other predators that are threatening livestock, but the use of poison is illegal. With the growing knowledge bank of coyote behavioral science, landowners today are learning there are more prudent ways to handle problem wildlife. In many cases, the best answer isn’t a bullet.