Educational Series: It’s Time to Stop Killing and Persecuting Coyotes

By Nick Engelfried
With the exception of the domestic dog, no member of the canine family is more closely associated with humans in North America than the coyote. Larger and more powerful than a fox, but smaller than a wolf, at about 25-35 pounds a typical coyote could be easily mistaken for a dog. However, these intelligent creatures are true wild animals who would rather keep clear of people if possible. In fact, large parts of the U.S. human population probably live in much closer quarters with coyotes than most of us tend to realize. This raises an important question: how do we interact humanely with this often-maligned but ecologically important species?

Unlike the vast majority of wild mammals in North America, coyotes have actually seen their range expand since the onset of colonization and settlement by Europeans. The species was originally confined mainly to dry habitats in the Southwest desert and Plains regions, where they filled an ecological niche similar to that of jackals in many parts of Africa and Asia. For thousands of years, coyotes have loomed large in cultures of the peoples Indigenous to the places they inhabit. For many Indigenous civilizations in what is now the Western United States, the trickster Coyote plays a key role in stories about the creation of the world we know today. Coyote’s prominence in Indigenous oral traditions is a reminder that these animals have always had a special relationship with the continent’s human inhabitants.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, settler colonists transformed the North American landscape in fundamental ways. This was detrimental for most wild animals–but for coyotes, the changes opened up new ecological opportunities. As wolves were displaced over most of their range, coyotes moved in to partially fill the vacant niche in places like the Eastern United States, where the species had not been common previously. And as coyotes adapted to life in agricultural and urban areas, their populations expanded far beyond the dry regions to which they were once confined. As a result, there may be more coyotes alive today than at almost any other point in the species’ history. However, as we shall see, this does not mean their interactions with people have always been positive.

Part of the coyote’s success in a post-colonization world can be credited to the extraordinary adaptability of the species. With their powerful sense of smell and acute vision, they will hunt prey from deer to insects and anything in between–including rodents, rabbits, snakes and lizards, birds, and occasionally domestic animals like lambs, calves, or pet cats and even small dogs. They are also happy to scavenge, feasting on carrion and refuse, and will even eat fruit, berries, and other plant material. In spring and summer the primary social unit for coyotes is the family group, in which both the male and female in a mated pair help raise pups and teach them to hunt for themselves. In fall and winter family groups may join up to form larger packs reminiscent of those made by wolves.

Their adaptability means that unlike wolves, coyotes can thrive in agricultural or even urban areas. However, this does not mean they necessarily have a good relationship with people in these places. In fact, the U.S. government has spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars trying to exterminate coyotes–mostly to little avail. Up until as late as the early twentieth century, the mass slaughter of predator animals was an accepted part of government policy carried out in the name of protecting livestock and “game” animals prized by hunters. Changing cultural attitudes toward predators, and laws like the Endangered Species Act, largely put a stop to the rampant killing of threatened species like wolves, except under unusual circumstances. However, because they are not endangered, coyotes are considered fair game for extermination in many parts of the country even to this day.

Coyotes are one of the species most frequently targeted by the infamous Wildlife Services, a federal government agency known for its outdated approach to “control” of predator and pest species. According to Wild Earth Guardians, Wildlife Services killed over 62,000 coyotes in 2020, a typical year of slaughter. This persecution has caused immense suffering for animals who are simply following their natural predator instincts in a world re-shaped by colonization–but it has had relatively little effect on coyote populations, which rebound quickly. It seems that, like it or not, we are stuck living with coyotes and must learn how to do so in a more peaceful manner.

In fact, there are many reasons why the elimination of coyotes from farmlands and cities would not be desirable, even if it were possible. As one of the largest predators capable of surviving in densely populated areas, coyotes play an important role controlling rodents and other pest animals. They have also become increasingly important members of the animal community in more wild landscapes, where larger predators like wolves have been eliminated by hunting. In fact, coyotes in the Eastern United States are literally part wolf. It seems that as the smaller canid species moved eastward to take advantage of new ecological niches, they interbred with the fast-declining wolf population. Today, eastern coyotes carry a significant amount of wolf DNA in their genes, which has made them larger than their western counterparts.

So, is there any legitimate reason why people and coyotes can’t coexist? The truth is that while these canids will occasionally feed on pets or livestock, this is unusual behavior and they would almost always prefer to hunt wild prey. If you are a pet owner in coyote country, exercise common sense to protect your cat or small dog by keeping them indoors or under a watchful eye when outside. As for coyotes in farm country, those few who form a habit of preying on livestock can be relocated using humane, non-lethal methods.

Some people also wonder if they should be concerned for their own safety when around coyotes? The answer is that like any wild creature, a coyote can respond aggressively if it feels threatened or cornered–but instances of these animals going out of their way to attack humans are almost unheard of. Maintain a respectful distance, and don’t get between a coyote and its pups or food, and you have no reason to fear.

Interactions between humans and coyotes in North America go back thousands of years–but while Indigenous peoples have long co-existed peacefully with them, their relationship with the descendents of colonizers has been much more fraught. For too long, these extraordinarily adaptable animals have been regarded as little more than pests, but in fact they have become an important part of the tapestry of life in both rural and urban areas. By celebrating coyotes rather than persecuting those who come into contact with people and their domestic animals, we can write a new chapter in the long story of human-coyote relations on this continent.

Photo credit: nature80020

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Which of these forms a normal part of a coyote’s diet?
In which of these regions did coyotes live in large numbers prior to European colonization?
Which of these animals fills a similar ecological role to that of the coyote in Africa and Asia?
Approximately how many coyotes were killed by Wildlife Services in 2020?
True or false: Father coyotes play little part in the rearing of pups
In which region do local coyote populations carry significant amounts of wolf DNA in their genes?
At what time of year are you most likely to find coyotes hunting in packs?

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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