By Dan Flores, The New York Times, August 11, 2016
One morning in the late 1930s, the biologist Adolph Murie stood near a game trail in Yellowstone National Park and watched a passing coyote joyously toss a sprig of sagebrush in the air with its mouth, adroitly catch it, and repeat the act every few yards. At the time, Mr. Murie was conducting a federal study intended to prove, definitively, that the coyote was “the archpredator of our time.” But Mr. Murie, whose work ultimately exonerated the animals, was more impressed by that sprig-tossing — proof, he believed, of the joy a wild coyote took in being alive in the world.
Today, more than 80 years later, coyotes are the most common large predators in America, and an increasingly common sight in our cities and suburbs. If we paid attention, we might share Mr. Murie’s fascination with an intelligent, playful creature. Instead, according to Project Coyote, an animal-welfare organization, we kill roughly half a million of them a year.
No other wild animal in American history has suffered the kind of deliberate, and casual, persecution we have rained down on coyotes. For a long stretch of the 20th century, coyotes were, along with gray and red wolves, the rare native American species designated by the federal government for eradication.
In 1931, just a handful of years after the extirpation of gray wolves in Yellowstone, the federal Animal Damage Control Act appropriated $10 million for the erasure of coyotes in America. From 1945 to 1972, when a presidential proclamation by Richard M. Nixon curtailed the war of extermination, a Department of Agriculture agency now called Wildlife Services collected the carcasses of 3.6 million coyotes. Many in the agency believed its poisons had killed an additional three million coyotes whose bodies were never found.
Amid this coyote war, a pair of biologists, Fred Knowlton and Guy Connolly, published a study explaining how it was possible for coyotes to withstand such withering, scorched-earth warfare. “The Effects of Control on Coyote Populations” was a mind-bending revelation. Under persecution, the biologists argued, evolved colonizing mechanisms kicked in for coyotes. They have larger litters. If alpha females die, beta females breed. Pressured, they engage an adaptation called fission-fusion, with packs breaking up and pairs and individuals scattering to the winds and colonizing new areas. In full colonization mode, the scientists found, coyotes could withstand as much as a 70 percent yearly kill rate without suffering any decline in their total population.
As modern studies in places like Yellowstone have shown, when coyotes are left alone, their populations stabilize. The only real effect a half-century of coyote killing produced, then, was to introduce coyote Manifest Destiny, as they spread out of the West and into the East and South and big cities.
Despite Nixon’s decision, Wildlife Services continues its pursuit, spending $140 million a year to kill coyotes and other “undesirable” animals. The agency exists to serve one constituency, a dwindling American sheep industry, for which it still sends planes and helicopters after 80,000 coyotes a year. On behalf of our nation’s sheep, from 2006 to 2011 the agency “retired” 512,710 coyotes.
The government isn’t the only one going after coyotes. Hundreds die each year in weekend hunting “competitions,” often for prizes or gambling pots, that are promoted as a way to attract young people to hunting. Their victims are not only coyotes but the very image of rural America, tarnished by widespread photos of beefy, middle-aged men in camouflage, with guns in hand and dead animals no one is ever going to eat piled up in the backs of pickups.
Coyotes are not endangered, and they don’t need our help to survive as a species (though recovering populations of wolves, which are often mistaken for coyotes during hunts, could use it). But there is something perverse in the government, and society, marking a species for death, setting it outside the bounds of even our wildlife protection laws.
We know coyotes are intelligent, social creatures. They do not enjoy death. No thoughtful human being, considerate of other life, should sacrifice for pleasure or a bet an animal like the one Adolph Murie observed in Yellowstone in the 1930s. Doing so is immoral — not in a religious sense, but in reference to morality’s origins, the evolution of a sense of fairness among members of a social species, which early on came to include a human recognition that other creatures enjoy being alive and that depriving them of life is a very serious matter. Over 2,000 years ago, the philosopher Bion of Borysthenes elucidated why modern, competitive hunts for coyotes are an absolutely abominable idea: “Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, the frogs die not in sport, but in earnest.”
Killing an animal that for five million years has had an important role to play in nature is an act of adolescence. As long as urbanites keep their dogs and cats inside at night, coyotes pose no unique or overwhelming danger, certainly no more than other wild predators. So why do we continue to mark them as targets for our blood sports?
Dan Flores is the author, most recently, of “Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History.”