Living With Coyote Means Changing Our Own Behavior
I hadn’t really thought much about coyotes until a few years ago while attending a conference in Yellowstone on predators. Three different biologists, during their presentations, praised coyote as their favorite predator.
Since this was coming from people who also studied charismatic megafauna like wolves and grizzly bears, I began to learn more about coyote. Today, though I am still partial to bears and wolves, I have to agree that perhaps the most interesting predator is coyote.
I bring this up after reading of incidents in Denver of humans being “attacked” and bitten by coyotes within city limits. A woman in southeast Denver reported being attacked by three coyotes while walking her dog, and a man in Broomfield was bitten while walking his dog, as was another Broomfield woman in January.
Much as I appreciate canis latrans, I don’t like to hear about humans having contact with, let alone being bitten by wild animals. But given the information we have, I take issue with these incidents being characterized as attacks or somehow as proof that coyotes are becoming more aggressive toward humans.
Thanks to a diverse diet and plenty of food in urban areas, coyote is certainly comfortable in the city landscape. Difficult as it is to figure out what actually happened from the published accounts, two things come to mind in both Broomfield incidents. First, each took place near dawn or dusk in parks, times when coyote is known to be active, and in each case, off-leash dogs chased after the coyotes, the humans intervened and were bitten.
Coyotes can be aggressive around food, and it is certainly possible that the coyotes attacked the humans, but it is also just as easy to suggest that the coyotes were playing with or perhaps protecting themselves against attacks from the canines. Had the dogs been on-leash, as per Broomfield law, the incidents probably wouldn’t have happened.
Coyotes are among the most adaptive animals in evolution. Coyote biologist Robert Crabtree calls them “the ultimate icon of human defiance.” They are present in every state except Hawaii and can adapt to life in a New York City alleyway as easily as a Colorado arroyo. As a Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesperson said recently, if you completely covered the United States with concrete, coyotes would still live among us.
Judging from some of the comments posted to news stories about these events, you might believe that killing coyotes is actually a viable solution.
History and studies of coyote behavior and reproduction tell us otherwise. Beginning with the repeating rifle and continuing with poison and traps, we have been trying to exterminate coyote, which evolved in North America alongside the long-extinct dire wolf, since we arrived on these shores. We came damned close to annihilating the grizzly bear and the gray wolf in the lower 48, but our attempts to exterminate coyotes have been met with nothing but frustration and more and more coyotes. The government’s Wildlife Services program kills almost half a million coyotes a year in the guise of ranch-animal protection, with no negligible effect on the population. I can find no firm statistics, but there are almost certainly more coyotes in the United States today than there were two hundred and fifty years ago.
That’s one of the main reasons I admire coyote. How can you hate a species that has completely outsmarted humans and live in defiance of us? And we humans don’t seem to be getting it yet. We leave them food in unsecured garbage bins, compost bins and pet bowls.
And instead of a couple of unfortunate incidents that better human decisions might have avoided, there are people in Denver somehow convinced that coyotes are out there behind the back fence plotting to snatch their pets and terrorize their lives. In an extreme and unfortunate reaction, Greenwood Village is foolishly going to waste precious city funds to hire sharpshooters to kill coyotes within city limits and is petitioning the state to allow leg-traps. God only knows what they will catch in those things, and come next January, there will more coyotes there.
That’s old-fashioned thinking, and it is doomed to failure. Why not teach people, like the Division of Wildlife does, about coyote behavior? Why not secure your garbage and pet foods? Why not leash your dogs in areas where coyotes are known to be? Or let your neighbors know when coyotes have been spotted in your neighborhood? We are not going to kill off coyotes or change their behavior, and to live with them, we will have to change our own — or live in Hawaii.