The long persecuted coyote is not vermin, after all. Researchers are now discovering that it's a resilient, adaptable predator that's not just surviving in U.S. cities but playing a valuable role in restoring the food chain for the benefit of birds and other species.
The coyote trots down the street like he owns it, seemingly unconcerned about the cars and people bustling around him on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Alameda, an affluent neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. At about 35 pounds, he's half the weight of a black lab, or one-third that of a gray wolf. But the compact coyote, with its strong, thin legs and sinewy torso under a thick gray-white coat, is the picture of grace. His fluffy, foxlike tail sways behind him as he lopes down the road at an easy clip, one paw on the ground at a time. He stops here and there to poke his slim muzzle into deep-red and golden-yellow leaves. Occasionally he veers off course to investigate a yard. It's not the first time this sleek animal has ventured out in the daytime--decidedly odd behavior for creatures so secretive and glimpsed so rarely that they're like ghosts moving across the nighttime landscape.
Coyotes typically emerge at dusk to hunt, slipping from shadow to shadow, melting into the darkness to avoid drawing the attention of oblivious passersby. They're so good at hiding that most people don't realize the wily creatures moved into Portland--and cities across the country--years ago. They sleep in parks or small snatches of vegetation during the day, stealing out as twilight falls to find rodents and rabbits. So a coyote appearing in broad daylight, unfazed by people and dogs, was a spectacle. "Dozens of people a day called to report a coyote acting strangely this past November," says Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland, who went to see for himself. "I'd never seen anything like it," he says of the predator nonchalantly making its way through the neighborhood, sidestepping stopped cars with gawking occupants. "It was insane."
Sallinger usually reassures people that though coyotes are taking up residence in urban areas, they typically avoid people. Not this time. To prevent the emboldened animal from potentially attacking someone who got too close, officials discussed lethal control, or hazing with loud noises to restore its instinctual shyness. Eventually it became clear that the coyote was being fed. "Someone was putting out whole chickens; another was driving around putting food out for them. They thought they were helping, but after talking to them, they realized that they might be signing a death warrant." Audubon and other groups are now pushing for a no-feed ordinance.
Sallinger tries to put the risk coyotes pose in perspective. "More people are injured every year by bees, cows, rattlesnakes," he says. "If you're going to be killed by a large animal in the Northwest, it's probably going to be by hitting a deer with your car." There's been only one recorded coyote-related human death in the United States, and that was 30 years ago. A recent flurry of coyote activity--mostly attacks on off-leash dogs and a handful of people bitten--has spurred Denver suburbs to hire shooters to kill coyotes. Yet experts say culling is futile, because new coyotes fill the gap. "There may be situations in which lethal control is warranted," says Sallinger. "But the sad thing is that communities are killing them for no reason. I think too often the knee-jerk reaction is fear and unnecessary lethal control. The only solution is to learn to coexist."
Over the past decade coyotes have gained a foothold in most major U.S. metro areas, from Austin to Denver, from Los Angeles County to New York's Westchester County. "Cities have put more and more resources toward creating green spaces--butterfly gardens, parks, natural areas in golf courses," says Stan Gehrt, an Ohio State University biologist who leads the Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project, which has captured, released, and tracked more than 500 coyotes in Chicago since 2000. "They want a sense of nature. But when nature starts using it, some people get upset. We'd argue that coyotes are an important part of the natural world, even in cities." In fact, despite their relative invisibility and shady reputation, Gehrt has found that the canids play a significant role in the urban ecosystem, helping to keep in check populations of everything from Canada geese to deer.
Learning more about coyotes--what they eat, where they live, their social structure--is important both for their conservation and for minimizing human-coyote conflicts, says Gehrt. "If they were really as habituated as people think, they'd see them all the time. If they were as aggressive as they're portrayed in the news, people would be attacked all the time. By and large, they're not changing their behavior."
In Native American mythology, coyotes represent everything from trickster to creator. Navajo sheepherders reverently called them "God's dogs," and indeed, as if immortal, the wily creatures are thriving despite a century of persecution. Like wolves, coyotes have long been exterminated by the U.S. government in the name of livestock protection. Starting in 1915, each year tens of thousands--in some years more than 100,000--have been killed. Coyotes are responsible for an estimated $27 million a year in livestock damages, primarily sheep, says the USDA. Since they're considered vermin in some states, no permits are required to shoot or trap them there. As recently as the 1970s coyote pelts were selling for $45. But fashions soon changed, and demand decreased. "Prices dropped around the nation at the same time, so trappers weren't taking nearly as many coyotes," says Gehrt. "That's probably part of the reason so many cities got coyote populations at the same time."