By Katie Stennes
For years we have been working to prevent the wanton slaughter of animals in wildlife killing contests. The coyote, an animal who has been wrongly considered a pest in popular culture, is most often the central target of such events. We are trying to change that. Here, Katie Stennes, program manager of our Wildlife Protection department, writes about why fighting for coyotes is especially meaningful for her.
Earlier this summer, news footage of a coyote mom caring for her six adorable pups outside a Lake Tahoe home awed viewers. The mom decided to make a den underneath the home, and the homeowner allowed a naturalist to place a camera outside to watch her comings and goings. The video shows the coyote nursing the pups, mediating play fights, and heading out to search for food—spending 16 hours per day scavenging and hunting to feed her family.
As a new mom myself, I really admire this coyote mom’s efforts. My one toddler leaves me frazzled and exhausted—I can’t imagine six of him! Coyotes, who are monogamous and typically mate for life, are known for being excellent parents. They take equal responsibility for parenting and feeding their pups. They’re very protective of their young and will move pups to new dens if the original site feels unsafe.
Coyotes have lived in North America since the Pleistocene. Some Native American folklore features the coyote as creator deity and trickster and associates the species with military prowess. But coyotes are also the most persecuted native carnivore on the continent, slaughtered in contests for prizes, trapped, poisoned, gunned down, shot from aircraft and killed in their dens with their pups. Hundreds of thousands of coyotes are killed annually by private individuals and federal, state and local governments, with U.S. taxpayer dollars subsidizing the ongoing massacre.
Ironically, killing coyotes can lead to an increase in their numbers. This is because coyotes compensate for the temporary loss by increasing their reproduction. Typically, only the dominant pair in a pack of coyotes reproduces, which behaviorally suppresses reproduction among subordinate members of the group. But when one or both members of the alpha pair are killed, other pairs will form and reproduce—resulting in more coyotes. More than 100 years of coyote killing has not reduced their populations. In fact, since 1850 when mass killings of coyotes began, the range of this species has tripled in the U.S. Thankfully, peaceful coexistence with these complex canines is possible using commonsense precautions like keeping cats indoors, always supervising dogs when they are outside and securing food scraps and garbage in wildlife-proof containers. We also work with local governments to encourage the adoption of nonlethal coyote management plans.
In our public outreach, we make it clear that coyotes are worth protecting. They play a critical role in healthy ecosystems, providing a range of free, natural ecological services to urban, suburban and rural communities. They help to control disease transmission by keeping rodent populations in check, curtailing tick-borne diseases like Lyme. And they consume animal carcasses (keeping the environment clean), increase plant and animal biodiversity and disperse seeds.
But their value goes beyond their role in the ecosystem. One night while on a trip to New Mexico in 2019 I had the pleasure of hearing wild coyotes howling and yipping. It was a magical experience. Coyotes are one of the most vociferous wild mammals in North America. At least 11 different vocalizations, including growl, huff, woof, bark, bark-howl, lone howl, group yip-howl, whine, group howl, greeting songs and yelps, have among some native peoples earned the coyote the name “song dog.” Using an auditory illusion known as the “beau geste effect,” two coyotes can sound like seven or eight with the variety of sounds they can produce, and the way sound is altered as it passes through the environment.
Coyotes are smart, collaborative and have been known to enlist the help of other kinds of animals to help them hunt. Coyotes and badgers have been observed hunting for rodents together: While coyotes are fast and excel at chasing prey, badgers are diggers who can pursue animals in underground burrows. Coyotes are also social and playful; online searches yield fascinating footage of a coyote playing with dog toys left in a yard and a coyote with a classic case of the “zoomies,” among so many other wonderful moments caught on camera.
We work not only to raise awareness about coyotes as unique, intelligent, sociable, adaptable, clever individuals who also play a valuable role as a species, but to ensure passage of meaningful legislation and regulations that protect them from brutal treatment. It’s time to treat America’s song dogs with the respect and appreciation they deserve.