Newcastle — Last week I attended a lecture by state wildlife biologist Geri Vistein. It was all about the tribulations of the coyote, a varmint that is struggling to coexist with us and having some success, even though he is a predator. Pity the predator. For centuries, ever since we began practicing animal husbandry, we have sought to eliminate this threat to our domestic animals and ourselves. For example, wolves, once numbering in the millions in North America, have been nearly exterminated. These animals could live in harmony with the Native Americans, but not with the settlers. Our conscientious blindness to the orderly nature of things is obvious, but difficult to enlighten.
The demise of the wolf has been beneficial to the vicissitude of the coyote. Wolves kill coyotes and a coyote would never willingly enter a wolf’s territory. With the wolves gone there is more open territory and more coyotes. In a stable population, possible in rural, uninhabited areas like Baxter State Park, each family has a territory and honors the bordering territory of others. The population is reminded of the boundaries by the barking and howling (alpha male) of the residents.
Inhabited areas lead to unstable populations which may, somewhat counter-intuitively be comprised of individually larger territories, healthier animals (more food), and larger litters (as many as sixteen pups). Inhabited areas may also, however, lead to wandering, starving, unhealthy individuals more likely to snatch that farm chicken or the pet cat. It’s a conundrum we solve by killing every coyote we can find.
How about coyote sex life? I always like to write about sex. Female coyotes are in estrus for two to five days between late January and late March, during which mating occurs. That’s not a whole lot of mating. We could learn from that. Our incessant and random mating causes us problems. According to Wikipedia, “once the female coyote chooses a partner, the mated pair may remain temporarily monogamous for a number of years.” Why that’s just like us! Except in our case “temporarily monogamous” means maybe ‘til your feet hit the floor?
In Maine there are practically no restrictions on the destruction of coyotes. No hunting on the Sabbath, or at night during the summer and fall, but otherwise almost anything is permitted, provided you have paid for a permit. There are sensible rules against weapons of mass destruction; no heat-seeking missiles, for example. Here’s an oddity: “While night hunting coyotes, you must be in possession of an electronic or hand-held predator call.” Whatever for? That would seem to me simply to increase your chance of being shot by another hunter. Something else bizarre: “It is illegal to shoot a coyote caught in a foothold trap that you do not own.” Leave the beast there to suffer; good thinking.
The coyote is very like a dog, but faster, smarter, and with better sensory organs. Knowing how we treasure our canines one might think this would reduce our zest for killing coyotes. It doesn’t, possibly because Wile E. lacks the obsequiousness of Fido; a coyote cannot be tamed and domesticated.
It’s easy to make the case that coyotes do more good than harm, principally in holding down the rodent population. It’s likely that if more white mice were eaten we would mitigate our Lyme disease problem on Maine’s islands. Bring in a coyote family and it would probably not have been thought necessary to exterminate all the deer on Monhegan island; nor would the people of Isleboro currently feel obliged to initiate their proposed deer kill. In addition to eating the mice, coyotes would also cull the unhealthy deer. Recall the white rabbit population explosion which plagued the farmers of the Dust Bowl during the depression. Wouldn’t have happened if the coyotes hadn’t been eliminated. Yet in spite of these benefits our government routinely shoots, poisons, traps and kills about 90,000 coyotes each year. The activity is allegedly to protect people and livestock, but I suspect that in reality it is to keep those political donations pouring in from the fat cat ranchers.
Ms. Vistein emphasized that coyotes are no threat to humans, in spite of the fact that the Maine variety, having cross-bred with the Canadian wolf, is a pretty big critter. In the very rare cases where damage has been done, the cause is almost always shown to result from the human’s attempt to feed the animal. Never feed wild animals (unless, of course, you are merely baiting them so that you can murder them). Ms. Vistein expanded this concept to castigate those of us who hang bird feeders. "Such action upsets the normal balance of nature." Well, that’s true, but that’s the human condition: disturbing the natural balance. And we’re really good at it.