Wednesday, January 20, 2021

You Just Can't Keep a Good Coyote Down

In 1995 Yellowstone’s coyotes had no idea 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 neighbors 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 paw, 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 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. 

The War on Yellowstone Coyotes Began in 1896

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, 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 troops 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 essential and should be protected became NPS policy in 1936, and the sanctioned killing of wolves and coyotes in Yellowstone stopped. 

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 Yellowstone. In contrast, it only took seven years to kill 132 wolves and eradicate them from the park. 

How Did Coyotes Survive While Wolves Did Not? 

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 coyote 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.

Coyotes Were Also Targeted Outside Yellowstone  

The story was the same beyond the park’s boundaries where hunters and trappers—paid with government funds—destroyed the predators.

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. They 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.)

Photo Credits: All photos by Rick Lamplugh

Rick Lamplugh writes, photographs, and speaks to protect wildlife and wild lands.

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Signed Sets Available

Monday, January 18, 2021

One State's Wolf Prison Reveals Need for Federal Wolf Protection

When wolves were reintroduced into the Rocky Mountains in Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995, conservationists hoped that these wolves and their descendants would create a healthy population that would in turn produce dispersers. Dispersal is a fact of wolf life; wolves regularly leave their birth packs in search of food, open territory, or a mate to start a pack with. 

By 2008--with the help of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act-- that hope became reality: dispersers of reintroduced wolves had created the first confirmed packs in Oregon and Washington. By 2020 dispersers that had made the long trek to California had established the state’s only pack, one with a breeding pair and 13 other members. 

Yet by 2020 dispersers had not established a single breeding pair in Colorado, the only Rocky Mountain state still without a permanent wolf population. This shortage of successful dispersers speaks to the necessity of ESA protection for wolves.

A handful of dispersers did reach Colorado but most ended up dead: poisoned, hit by a car, and killed by a hunter who claimed he thought he shot a coyote. In July of 2019 a collared male disperser from Wyoming’s Snake River pack arrived in northwest Colorado and is still in the state according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website. 

In January of 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed that a pack of six wolves, mostly brothers and sisters, was living in northwestern Colorado. Since most of those wolves are related, reproduction is unlikely without unrelated dispersers reaching the state and finding the pack.  

But they better hurry. In September of 2020, the Center for Biological Diversity reported that at least three of the six wolves in that pack had been illegally shot and killed.

So that’s it: After a quarter-century of wolves successfully dispersing elsewhere across the West, Colorado has a confirmed lone wolf and three survivors of poaching. 

Why Don't Dispersers Reach Colorado? 

Wyoming, right on Colorado’s northern border, has a well established wolf population that generates dispersers. So I looked at Wyoming’s wolf management plan, and the more I dug into that plan, the more I saw how Wyoming has created what I call a wolf prison that keeps dispersers from reaching Colorado.

As the map above shows, Wyoming’s prison sits in the northwest corner of the state on the public lands that surround Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Wyoming calls this prison its Wolf Trophy Game Management Area (WTGMA). Recent data from Wyoming Game & Fish Department reveals that almost every one of the state’s 50 or so wolf packs roam within the trophy zone most or all of the time. 

Trophy hunters need a license to kill in the zone and there are limits to how many wolves can be taken. In 2020, 31 wolves were killed in the trophy zone.

If a wolf isn’t killed in the trophy zone, it can still be killed trying to escape, to follow that natural urge to disperse. When a wolf disperses from the trophy zone where it can be hunted three to six months of the year, it enters the 85% of the state where it can be shot on sight, anytime, anywhere, by anyone. No license needed. Wyoming calls this area surrounding the trophy zone its Predator Zone.

Of course, a wolf can’t see prison walls designated by lines on a map when it is compelled to disperse. Consider a wolf who busts out and heads south in search of elk, a favorite meal. Plenty of elk can be found between the Wind River Reservation that sits at the southeastern corner of the prison and the Colorado border, according to three web sites oriented to elk hunters. So the escaped wolf may take an elk right away or continue south. 

As the map below shows, in about 250 miles (not a long wolf journey), the escapee—if not shot on sight anytime, anywhere, by anyone—could reach elk-filled northwestern Colorado, where all of Colorado’s few confirmed wolf sightings have occurred.

But with the way Wyoming has set up the prison, an escapee’s chances of reaching Colorado are deathly slim. Last year 24 wolves were reported killed in the Predator Zone, according to Wyoming Game & Fish. That’s just the number reported. I wouldn’t be surprised if others were shot and not reported. They are, after all, considered vermin in the Predator Zone. 

Yet that collared male from Wyoming’s Snake River pack escaped the prison, survived the Predator Zone, and reached northwestern Colorado. His escape and survival may be even more miraculous than that of Oregon’s famous OR-7 that dispersed from northeastern Oregon to northern California. While on his longer journey, OR-7 was almost always protected by the Endangered Species Act. But the Snake River escapee from wolf prison had no protection in the Predator Zone.

Wyoming’s Management Necessitates Reintroducing Wolves to Colorado 

Clearly, the prison system Wyoming uses to manage wolves keep dispersers from reaching Colorado—a state with plenty of elk and suitable wolf habitat. Surely some of those 24 wolves killed in the Predator Zone—probably many of them—were heading towards Colorado when they were senselessly killed. If they had reached Colorado, those dispersers could have found one another, bred, and created a permanent wolf population. 

If wolves can’t walk to Colorado, they can still be trucked in. Proposition 114, which Colorado voters approved in November 2020, instructs their Parks and Wildlife Department to develop and implement a science-based plan for reintroducing gray wolves to the state. 

The impact of Wyoming’s wolf management plan on Colorado’s wolf population reveals why dispersing wolves need federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. When federal protection is stopped and management is handed over to individual states, one state’s approach can stop dispersing wolves from reclaiming territory in a neighboring state. Just as Wyoming’s Predator Zone has stopped wolves from reclaiming habitat in Colorado.

Image Credits: Wolf photo public domain via Pixabay. 
Map of WTGMA by Wyoming Game & Fish. 
Map of Predator Zone created by Rick Lamplugh from downloadable Wyoming map from

Rick Lamplugh writes, photographs, and speaks to protect wildlife and wild lands.

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Signed Sets Available

Monday, January 11, 2021

Nine Way to Keep--or Start--Advocating

During the last nine years of advocating for wildlife and wild lands, I've talked with many other advocates. Often our conservations touch on challenges we face. 

And sometimes we ask: How do you keep going with so few victories to celebrate? 

Perhaps that question has nagged you too. 

Each advocate has a different approach to persevering. I’ve listed below nine tips gathered from talking with other advocates and from my own soul searching. And these tips for persevering can also help you start advocating. 

I've inserted links to some of my posts that provide helpful starting points for learning more. 

I hope one or more of these tips resonates with you and helps you keep--or start--advocating in 2021. We need you! 

If there are ways that you keep going that I haven’t mentioned, I would love to read your comment or message about them.

Here’s hoping for more victories in 2021.

Start simple 
  • Change one mind at a time.
  • Educate yourself, your family, your friends.
  • Dig deeper and keep learning: knowledge is power.
Get active
  • Call or write personal emails or letters to legislators and officials.
  • Attend hearings; show up and give informed public comment.
Be respectful
  • Advocacy doesn’t always require confrontation.
  • Direct your anger toward a positive outcome.
  • Listen with empathy for the myths behind hate and fear.
  • Use facts—not just opinions—to debunk myths.
Prepare to counter the 3 Big Myths 
Advocate for coexistence
Connect with others 
Go for swing votes  
  • If somebody hates wolves, we are not likely to change that opinion. 
  • If somebody loves wolves, that may limit their seeing the wolf controversy from both sides. 
  • But there is a group of people in the middle—what politicians call “swing voters.” Those are the people we want to reach. 
  • Move swing voters towards a respect for wolves. They don’t need to hate or love wolves, but hopefully they can see wolves as wild animals we can learn to coexist with.
  • Perhaps they can see how wolves can help in the battle against chronic wasting disease
Remember: Changing attitudes takes a long time
  • 1926: The last wolf in Yellowstone killed.
  • 1944: Aldo Leopold wrote about reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone.
  • 1987: The US Fish and Wildlife Service pushes a wolf recovery plan.
  • 1995: Wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone.
  • 2019: More than 2000 wolves roam Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, California. 
Reward yourself
  • Make visits (local or far ranging) to see wildlife and wild lands.
  • Take care of yourself so that you can stay in this for the long haul.
Photo Credit: Wolf in snow by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Rick Lamplugh writes, photographs, and speaks to protect wildlife and wild lands.

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Signed Sets Available

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Ecological Footprint of Wolves

In the early morning light of a crisp Fall day, Mary, Bob Beschta, and I hike toward the distant hills where we will assist Beschta in his research. This Oregon State University professor emeritus, has observed firsthand since 2001 how aspens, cottonwoods, willows, and berry-producing shrubs have recovered since wolves returned to Yellowstone. This research has left him no doubts about the beneficial ecological footprint of wolves.

Farther along the trail, Beschta points with a hiking pole to some healthy young aspens—what he calls recruits—growing along Glen Creek. If wolves were absent from Yellowstone, he says, those aspens and nearby willows would be eaten down to the nubs by elk who could dine for as long as they pleased. But fearing wolves, or the threat of wolves, elk have changed where and how they eat. This has allowed plants that were once ravaged by elk to grow six feet tall. Reaching that height is critical for their survival.

As the aspens and willows have flourished along Glen Creek, beavers have settled nearby, since they too love to eat both plants. They’ve built a dam on the creek, and its pond reflects clouds and sky. This pond moistens and softens an expanding area of ground at its edges. Elk do not like feeding on such soft ground, possibly because it slows their escape from wolves. But aspens and willows love moist ground, and without elk browsing the plants to within an inch of their lives, the stand has grown taller and wider.

Leaving the trail, we bushwhack across the valley floor and rock-hop across Glen Creek to reach a stand of aspens and their recruits—thin saplings growing below a few mature trees. Beschta sets to work. He selects recruits and measures their height. He determines whether and when the recruit was browsed by elk. He relays this information to Mary, and she records the data in his field notebook.

After Beschta finishes measuring, he scans for conditions that could affect an elk’s decision on whether to dine here. Standing among the recruits, he turns a circle, points, and says to us, “If I’m an elk, I can see one hundred yards that way, one hundred yards this way. I can see approaching wolves. Even if they come out of the woods, I’ve got a good escape route."

Where he stands, elk may have less reason to fear the presence of wolves and more reason to dine. That may explain why the recruits around him are so short. Another site could experience just the opposite if it has factors that make spotting wolves or escape difficult. There, elk could feel more fear and browse less. The aspens, willows, and cottonwoods could grow to that important six-foot height or taller.

We bushwhack to a stand of six aspens higher up the hillside. Each of these trees is at least one hundred years old, Beschta says. Their trunks are thick and free of branches and leaves until halfway to the top. Standing below those trees, Beschta takes us on a journey through time.

First, we go back to 1900 when wolves roamed Yellowstone and kept the elk population in check. Back then we would be standing in the cool shade of a full aspen forest, thick with trees of all sizes, stair-stepping in height from sprouts to mature adults.

Moving forward to 1940, we would find the thick forest disappearing. Wolves are nowhere—the last one killed over a decade earlier. Hungry elk are everywhere. When adult aspens send up sprouts, elk chomp the tender recruits to within a couple feet of the ground. Year after year this scenario repeats until the ravaged sprouts die.

Next, we travel to the present where we find only aspen of two ages. First are the one-hundred-year-old survivors that tower over us. These trees sprouted before wolves were killed off. Second are their healthy recruits that have sprouted since wolves returned. Seven decades of aspens are missing in this stand. They were consumed by overabundant elk in the absence of wolves.

And if we zip one hundred years ahead, with wolves around to keep elk cautious and their population in check, this grove will look as it did in 1900—a full aspen forest with tiny sprouts to huge adults, with no sizes missing in between. Thanks to wolves.

Beschta suggests that perhaps we should call these trees “wolf aspen” because without the return of wolves, aspen would have disappeared from the landscape in this northern part of the park.

The sun is disappearing behind the Gallatin range when we bushwhack to the last stand of the day, a tall, single, old aspen, the limbs on one side leafless. It’s surrounded by hundreds of recruits. Some are ten feet tall. Beschta points to the ailing aspen and says that as the recruits grow, they take more water and nutrients from the soil. Deprived of nutrition, the sickly mother tree will die sooner than if there were no recruits growing below her. I’m touched by how this is similar to the way some human parents sacrifice for their offspring.

As we pack up and start the return trip to the trailhead, Beschta stops, looks around, smiles, and says, “It’s nice to be on a positive ecological story. I’ve been on so many downers. This one keeps bringing me back."

I’m excited by all the young aspen we have walked among today, especially those over the magic six-foot height. I’m glad we have walked through a success story written by the ecological footprint of wolves.

This post based on a chapter from In the Temple of Wolves.

Photo Credit: Wolves chasing elk by NPS. Other photos by Rick Lamplugh

Rick Lamplugh writes, photographs, and speaks to protect wildlife and wild lands.

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Signed Sets Available

Thursday, January 7, 2021

There's a Lot to Like About Coyotes

My wife Mary and I volunteered and lived for three winters at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in the heart of Yellowstone's wolf country. We drove 14-passenger buses, carrying excited seminar participants over the Lamar Valley’s snow-covered roads in search of wildlife. Wolves top the list of animals visitors want to see in winter, and seminar instructors work hard to spot them. Coyotes definitely take second billing. 

But truth be told—I like coyotes as much as I like wolves. And two special days at the ranch one winter gave me the chance to observe coyotes in the wild and understand just why I like them so. 

Coyotes are clever

Just before dark, Mary and I slipped out of the bunkhouse kitchen and onto the back porch. Earlier in the day, one of the instructors had stopped by to tell us he had spotted a bison calf lying in the snow, and it didn’t look well. The calf was across the road from the ranch, close enough that we should be able to see it with our naked eyes and zero in with a spotting scope. 

I set up a scope, located the calf, and zoomed in on blood that dotted the snow near its head, as if sprayed by a cough or sneeze. The instructor didn’t know what had happened to the animal, and I wondered if it had internal injuries after being hit by a visitor’s car. The calf was so still that it looked dead, until the head rose a couple of inches and then flopped back onto the snow. 

I saw no predators or scavengers, but when I scanned to the west, I discovered a clever coyote mingling with a bison herd about a quarter mile away. Its head was down and its ears were twitching as it listened for mice or voles scurrying beneath the snow after being disturbed by grazing bison.

Coyotes are daring

During lunch the next day, I returned to the back porch. I had camp duty that day and the next, cleaning instead of driving. I had time to watch the calf and see what happened. Though I knew this could be gruesome, observing would help me better understand the Lamar Valley’s food web—who eats whom. And understanding the valley is one reason I came to the ranch.

I peered into the scope. The calf was so flat it looked boneless. A coyote, attentive, cautious, and from its size a male, stood about a yard from the hindquarters. He snuck forward, sniffing, tail down. The calf twitched; the coyote jumped back. A moment later he inched closer, poked the calf with his front paw. The calf shuddered; the coyote leapt. This dance continued; the three-hundred-pound calf struggling to maintain its life, the daring thirty-pound coyote working to sustain his. 

The coyote moved in and ducked his head out of my view and into the tender—and vulnerable—underbelly near the calf’s rear legs. When he came back into view, he had a mouth full of fur. I gasped. He dove back in and reappeared with more fur. I thought to myself: Eventually he’s going to come up with hide and blood. Do I want to watch anymore? I pulled my head away from the scope.

Coyotes are powerful and persistent

I studied the porch floor and thought about my desire to understand the food web. I returned to the scope. The coyote stood atop the calf and looked like a dog with a pull toy: head low, canine teeth hooked into hide, front and rear legs stretched forward, back arched. While pulling, he repeatedly and violently twisted his head from side to side. Even through the scope I felt his power. The calf wriggled but could not escape. 

The persistent coyote was trying to eat the calf while it was still alive. That made sense; once the animal died, the meat would freeze. This meal would never be warmer or softer. But understanding the efficiency didn’t make it any easier to watch.

The calf raised its head and looked at the predator. The coyote did not move away; he just glanced toward the calf’s eyes and then back at where he would bite next. The calf’s head fell back to the snow, and a large cloud of breath, perhaps its last, rose into the cold air, soft and white against the dark fur. I released a long, sad sigh.

Coyotes are realists

The coyote turned, looked toward the eager photographers that had gathered along the roadside, and circled his meal. He stared into the calf’s eyes and then sauntered to the rump. He poked the animal; it didn’t move. He pushed his muzzle against the calf. Still no movement. He yawned. A realist, he knew the animal was dead and there was no danger here, just a fine feast. There was no competition in sight, the sun was out, and the day relatively warm—about twenty-five degrees. The coyote curled up in the snow. 

Coyotes are communicators

A few hours later I returned to the scope and watched as a raven flew off, meat dangling from its beak. That single coyote—after his nap—must have opened the carcass, ate his fill, and left. 

I watched as two other coyotes approached. I recognized them: a big male and a smaller female, her tail ratty from mange. A mated pair, they had claimed this part of the valley as their territory. They stopped and nestled in the snow some distance from the carcass. They watched the photographers and showed no sign of moving in on the meal.

As the pair lay in the snow, I heard coyotes yelping from Ranger Hill, just beside the bunkhouse. I zoomed the scope in on the mated pair and waited for their reaction. They threw their heads back; their breath escaped without sound. Two seconds later their howls reached me. The Ranger Hill coyotes replied. I was in the middle of a call and response. I smiled and applauded softly.

Coyotes are tidy and loving

A few hours later, Mary joined me on the back porch and set up her scope. I looked into mine and focused on the male of the mated pair. He was eating and bloodied to his ears. 

He stopped, walked away, bowed down, and wiped either side of his face in the snow, painting red swaths. He finished his after-dinner ablutions by driving his muzzle into snow up to his eyes. Then he rejoined his ratty-tailed mate. 

After some sniffing and snuggling, the pair returned to the carcass and alternated short bursts of eating and glancing around the area, ever watchful of potential danger.

Coyotes are territorial, not bloodthirsty

A few moments later, the Ranger Hill Coyotes yelped again. I couldn’t see the yelpers but could distinguish several voices. Mary and I held our breath as two indistinct shapes moved down Ranger Hill in the direction of the bunkhouse. 

“I’ll bet those are the coyotes we heard yelping a minute ago,” I said.

“Whoa! Look at that. Raised leg urination!” Mary exclaimed. Both newcomers from Ranger Hill had raised a leg, urinated, and kicked snow on it. Only alphas—male and female—raise their legs to urinate; other pack members squat. This alpha pair was marking territory already claimed by the mated pair dining across the road. Trouble brewing!

The Ranger Hill coyotes crossed the road and began loping toward the carcass. When they reached the mated pair, they slowed down, lowered their heads, bared their canines, tucked their tails between their legs, and arched their backs.

“Alligator!” Mary yelled, calling this dominance move by its coyote-watcher name.

One of the Ranger Hill coyotes chased the male of the mated pair. As they raced away from the carcass, the Ranger Hill coyote bit the male’s rump. The male was the picture of fear: running full out, tail between his legs, mouth wide open, and head turned toward his pursuer. 

Meanwhile, back at the carcass, the ratty-tailed female of the mated pair had strolled ten yards away and was nonchalantly washing her face, having peacefully granted the carcass to the second Ranger Hill coyote. With no serious harm to each other, the four coyotes had decided who would eat next.

Coyotes are intelligent survivors

Some wildlife biologists believe that because the Lamar Valley is so small the animals that live there may know one another. If that's true, perhaps the Ranger Hill coyotes knew that the male of the mated pair wouldn’t leave without a squabble. And that his mate was not real competition and could be allowed to stroll.

After the Ranger Hill coyote quit the chase, he trotted back to the carcass, head high. He joined his partner in their prize. The vanquished male sat far away, cleaning himself.

I moved the scope around and looked at the coyotes. All four looked healthy. That fit what a veteran wolf watcher had told me: Since Yellowstone’s wolf reintroduction in 1995, only smart and strong coyotes have survived. 

Coyotes are worth protecting

Time spent living in coyote country taught me that these wild animals have qualities that would benefit any human. Coyotes are clever, daring, persistent, realistic, communicative, loving, intelligent, and survivors. Coyotes deserve our respect and protection.

This post based on a chapter from In the Temple of Wolves.

Photo Credit: All photos by Rick Lamplugh

Rick Lamplugh writes, photographs, and speaks to protect wildlife and wild lands.

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Signed Sets Available