Friday, November 16, 2018

You Just Can't Keep a Good Coyote Down

Yellowstone’s coyotes had no idea in 1995 who the new dog in the neighborhood was when wolves were reintroduced in the park. After a seventy-year absence, generations of coyotes had come and gone without a wolf in sight. But coyotes soon learned that these new dogs sure could bring down elk. The reintroduced wolves, on the other hand, knew exactly who the coyotes were: competitors for hard-won food.

A Yellowstone coyote is medium-sized, like a Border Collie. A wolf, on the other hand, is a giant. Wolves are a foot taller at the shoulder and weigh four times as much as coyotes. 

So when a hungry—and naive—coyote sidled up to join wolves at their kill, the wolf pack did what it does best: cut the competition, whether that rival is a wolf from another pack, a fox, a mountain lion, or a coyote. (Wolves rarely eat the competitors they kill.) 

Within a few years after wolf reintroduction, Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley coyote population had been reduced by half. Yet today, there are as many coyotes in the valley as there were before the wolves returned. That’s an impressive recovery, but I wouldn’t expect less from the coyote, an intelligent, tough survivor with a long history of overcoming adversity inside and outside the park. 

Coyote Control Begins

When Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, was established in 1872, no one had experience managing a park or protecting its wildlife. Protecting wildlife wasn’t even a high priority. Yellowstone was created to preserve magnificent scenery and magical geothermal features; the animals just happened to live within the new borders. And anyway, there was no money to hire staff to safeguard wildlife. So, for example, miners passing through the Lamar Valley on their way to claims near Cooke City hunted wolves and coyotes for sport or profit.

By the time wildlife protection was considered, park officials were only thinking about protecting bison, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and antelope from predators. To their minds, protecting wildlife meant killing wolves and coyotes. 

In 1896 coyote control was recommended, and poisoned animal carcasses were the weapon of choice. Eight years later with coyotes still holding their own, the park superintendent said he needed to escalate the war. He vowed to use “every means to get rid of them.” Three years after that, the war ratcheted up another notch when the U.S. army, which had been put in charge of the park, deployed soldiers against coyotes. 

This war against predators did not go unnoticed. By the late 1920s, people inside and outside the National Park Service—the group next in charge—were questioning the heavy-handed destruction of wolves and coyotes. Scientific organizations spoke out against predator control, saying these animals helped maintain ecological balance. The view that predators were necessary and should be protected became NPS policy in 1936, and the sanctioned killing of wolves and coyotes in Yellowstone stopped. 

The Coyote Survived; The Wolf Did Not

In the forty years between poisoning the first carcass and firing the last shot, more than 4,300 Yellowstone coyotes were killed. But that did not drive them from the park. In contrast, it only took seven years to kill 132 wolves and eradicate them from the park. 

Coyotes are opportunistic feeders; they’ll eat just about anything that doesn’t move or moves more slowly than they do. In 1937 Adolf Murie and his assistants conducted a landmark study of coyotes in the Lamar Valley. They scoured the valley floor, picked up thousands of pieces of coyote scat and analyzed them. They found that coyotes ate twelve kinds of large mammals; twenty-four different small mammals; twenty types of birds, fish, and snakes; four kinds of bugs; as well as grass, pine nuts, rose seeds, strawberries, mushrooms, blueberries, and Oregon grape. They also found in the scat remnants of leather work gloves, twine, cellophane, tinfoil, and shoestrings.

Such a varied diet makes poisoning coyotes more difficult than poisoning wolves, which prefer a single-item menu: elk. Poison the right elk carcass and you could kill an entire wolf pack.

Also, the size of the animal and its pack matters. The small coyote presents a more challenging target to a bounty hunter with a rifle. And when hunted by humans, coyotes decrease the size of their packs; smaller packs are less obvious and harder to track. Wolves, on the other hand, rarely travel alone and always live in packs; the larger the better, from the wolf’s point of view. And from the view of a hunter who is paid by the pelt.

Perhaps most important, unlike wolves, coyote reproduction is “density dependent.” If hunters and trappers kill many coyotes in a particular area, the surviving coyotes will produce more young than usual. According to one study, a coyote population can withstand an annual loss of seventy percent and still generate enough young to replace that loss.

These differences between the two animals are why predator control led to an increase in Yellowstone’s coyote population and the eradication of wolves. The story was the same beyond the park’s boundaries where hunters and trappers paid with government funds destroyed the predators.

The War Outside Yellowstone

Among those paid hunters was a predator control agent in New Mexico in the early 1920s named Aldo Leopold. He was good at his job and helped cut that state’s wolf population from 300 to 30 in just three years. When he saw the light about killing predators, it came as a fading green fire in the eyes of a wolf he had just shot. He wrote an essay about that experience and it was published in a book in 1949, shortly after his death. That book, A Sand County Almanac, would become one of the most significant environmental books of the 20th century. 

Leopold’s new ideas—including his 1944 recommendation to bring wolves back to Yellowstone—would lead to the development of environmental ethics and wilderness conservation. But that would take decades. Meanwhile, the killing of predators continued. 

By the 1970s, the range of the wolf, which had once covered over two-thirds of the United States, had shrunk to include just Alaska, northern Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and northern Minnesota. 

Coyotes—those tough little survivors—fared better than wolves in the predator war outside Yellowstone just as they had in the park, despite federal, state, and private hunters resorting to a gruesome arsenal. Hunters used snares, steel traps, and long-range rifles. They engaged in chemical warfare: anti-fertility chemicals, cyanide, sugar-coated strychnine, and other poisons. They used biological warfare: introducing mange so that coyotes would lose fur and die during winter. They flooded dens or set them on fire, hunted from airplanes and snowmobiles. 

All of this against a critter the size of a Border Collie.

And when the dust settled, coyotes, which before the onslaught had been concentrated in the Great Plains, now lived in every state except Hawaii. They have even taken up residence in large cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, where packs have learned to avoid humans by hunting at night and not howling.

Yep, you just can’t keep a good coyote down.

[This post based on a chapter from the best-selling In the Temple of Wolves. For order info, see below.]

Rick's award-winning Deep into Yellowstone and best-selling In the Temple of Wolves are available signed or unsigned on Amazon.

Rick's new book, The Wilds of Agingis available signed or on Amazon.

Coyote photos by Rick Lamplugh

Monday, November 12, 2018

Fact Check: Are Wolves Ruthless Killing Machines?

A common criticism by those who dislike wolves is that wolves are ruthless killing machines compelled by instinct to take whatever prey crosses their path. To check the reality of this, I dove into the writings of several well-respected wolf experts. It turns out that wolves are discriminating hunters; they have to be since they are not well equipped for hunting big prey. Wolves choose “weaker and naive animals and have their greatest success” with elk calves and older elk, writes Jim Halfpenny, an eminent naturalist and author of Yellowstone Wolves in the Wild.

But getting dinner is not easy—can even be deadly—and most hunts are unsuccessful. Yellowstone wolves, for example, only succeed 21% of the time, according to David Mech and Rolf Peterson, renowned wolf biologists writing in the book Wolves Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. “In no case, can a wolf merely walk up and kill a healthy ungulate that is more than a few days old.”

In Yellowstone the average female elk killed by wolves is about 14 years old, writes Halfpenny. By that age the elk’s teeth are worn down and less effective. This means the animal does not get proper nourishment and is weaker and more vulnerable to attack.

How do the wolves find a vulnerable animal? “Wolves stalk just like a house cat does,” writes Halfpenny. Wolves want to get as close as possible to an elk herd before starting a chase. Once the chase begins, the wolves sort and sift the herd trying to find a weak animal, one less likely to harm them. Wolves are risk averse and by chasing a herd, may detect a male that has been weakened by defending his females during the rut. Or they may separate a calf from the protection of the herd. Or they may find an animal that is diseased, has been injured, or was born with an abnormality.

But wolves also attack healthy animals, even big male elk with dangerous hooves and antlers. Wolves have a tactic that can turn that healthy elk into a vulnerable one: They attack the elk and before the animal can drive them off, they bite it as many times as possible. Those wounds cause blood loss. “Wounded animals,” writes Halfpenny, “seldom travel far, and wounded animals stiffen up, especially during long cold nights. A previously unbeatable foe may now be an easy target.”  

Whether the prey is healthy or vulnerable, wolves are not well equipped for bringing down big animals. A wolf’s skeleton is not built for killing, write Dan MacNulty, Dan Stahler, and Doug Smith in Yellowstone Science. A wolf’s skull is not designed to deliver a killing bite. A wolf’s front-most teeth are all it has for grabbing prey and those teeth wear out with age. A wolf’s jaw cannot be locked when biting prey. A wolf—unlike a cougar and grizzly bear—doesn’t have the right kind of claws and forelimbs for gripping prey. Finally, a wolf’s hunting ability decreases with age; the best hunters are two to three years old. (The average Yellowstone wolf lives to be four or five. Outside the park the average life span is two to three years.)

To reduce risks and overcome their shortcomings, wolves hunt in packs. Packs with four wolves are more successful than packs with fewer wolves when hunting elk. To take down a bison, a pack needs three times that many members.

Wolves are far from being ruthless killing machines. Wolves know they can die trying to dine, so they look for prey that is less dangerous. But even when they find such prey, wolves fail far more often than they succeed.

Rick's award-winning Deep into Yellowstone and best-selling In the Temple of Wolves are available signed or unsigned on Amazon.

Rick's new book, The Wilds of Agingis available signed or on Amazon.

Photo of Wapiti Lake pack by Mary Strickroth

Monday, November 5, 2018

Managing Wolves Requires Managing Cattle

The recent slaughter of wolves in Washington highlights a sad fact: cattle grazing on public lands is lethal for wolves. Washington has 1.1 million cattle and more than a third of the state is public land that many of those cattle run roughshod over. Those public lands are by necessity the home of Washington’s minuscule population of around 120 wolves. With so many cattle invading wolf territory, conflict happens.

A six-month-old wolf pup and his father, believed to be the last two wolves from the Old Profanity Territory pack in Washington, will soon be killed by state-sanctioned snipers, according to a report by the Center for Biological Diversity. This follows the state’s killing in September of the other pup and the mother wolf. The Center goes on to say that Washington state approved these latest killings at the request of a rancher who has kept his livestock on public lands past the date when he was legally required to remove them. He failed to implement key conflict-prevention measures like moving all his cattle away from sites wolves use, moving a salt block to stop drawing cattle in, or removing injured calves.

Washington has a Wolf Management Plan, but that plan’s basic premise—wolves are the problem and must pay the price for cattle-wolf conflict—is flawed. Washington is not unique: Wolf management plans in other states use the same flawed premise.

Washington—and other wolf states—need a Cattle Management Plan. Here’s the premise of the plan I propose: Killing wolves on public land is not acceptable; wolves have nowhere else to live. Instead, the livestock owner bears the burden for reducing conflict his animals cause while grazing on public land in wolf territory. If the owner is not willing to accept this premise and coexist with wolves, the owner should keep his livestock on private land and off public land. 

If the owner accepts this premise and his cattle create conflict with wolves on public land, the owner would have several chances to quickly remedy the situation.

With the first cattle-wolf conflict on public land, the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife would determine the non-lethal steps the owner must take to keep livestock separate from wolves. This analysis and compliance would happen quickly, let’s say within fourteen days. No wolves would be killed during this time.

With the second conflict, the owner’s herd would have to be moved away from the wolves they infringed upon. Let’s say a move of at least thirty miles within seven days. No wolves should be killed during this time. If the owner cannot locate all his cattle within that time, that is his problem and wolves should not be punished for taking strays that remain after the deadline.

With the third conflict, the owner’s privilege of grazing livestock on public land would be suspended for two years or more. All his livestock would be removed immediately, and no wolves would be killed. 

A Cattle Management Plan such as this should be operating and enforced in Washington and every other state where cattle create conflict with wolves on public land. This plan puts the responsibility for reducing conflict on the shoulders of the owners that benefit from the cost savings of grazing millions of cattle in wolf territory around the United States. 

This plan would also save the lives of many wolves that are simply trying to survive on public lands—the only home left to them.

Support the Center for Biological Diversity (donations through 12/31/18 will be matched) and Cascadia Wildlands (during November donations will be matched), currently suing the state of Washington over its lethal removal policy. 

Rick's award-winning Deep into Yellowstone and best-selling In the Temple of Wolves are available signed or unsigned on Amazon.

Rick's new book, The Wilds of Agingis available signed or on Amazon.

Photo by Rick Lamplugh