Four months ago, a popular website that dubs itself “America’s Finest News Source” came out with a story declaring “a new study” had determined that “for the 25th straight year, violent wolf attacks remain the leading cause of death in the United States.”
The “news source” was the Onion, a satirical publication, and the “new study” was, of course, fictitious. But the Onion was spot on in its parody of many Americans’ almost palpable dread of wolves since their reintroduction into the Rocky Mountains and their ongoing repopulation in the Pacific Northwest.
That dread is understandable in one sense: Wolf kills make for an ugly scene.
“They bite out a chunk and let the animal bleed out,” says Doug Zimmer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “You can end up with a whole pasture full of blood and a cow that went through a really painful death.
“That kind of traumatic slaughter effects these stock owners.”
As killers of livestock go, though, the wolf is comparatively inefficient or, at least, unprolific. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, of 220 predator-caused livestock mortalities in 2011, just 4 percent were attributed to wolves. Big cats — mountain lions, bobcats and lynx — accounted for another 9 percent, slightly less than dogs (10 percent).
Far and away No. 1 on the list, with 53 percent? The most problematic predator in the United States, not because of an edge in ferocity or size, but because they’re everywhere.
Remove them? How?
How many coyotes exist in North America is nearly impossible even to estimate, given their almost ubiquitous presence and, at the same, their ability to hide in plain sight.
But they flourish anywhere they can physically reach. The only state in which they don’t exist is Hawaii.
The last of the contiguous United States to be colonized by coyotes is tiny Delaware, a state so bounded by water that in order to reach it, the animals had to travel through a 15-mile strip of urban blacktop populated by 150,000 humans. Five years ago, Delaware had no coyotes. Now, says David Saveikis, director of the state’s wildlife department, there’s believed to be “a small population” in each of the state’s three counties.
California and Washington — the two most populous of the western states — are believed to be home to more than 70,000 and 50,000 coyotes, respectively. Even San Francisco, which has the second-highest population density of any U.S. city and is surrounded on three sides by water, is believed to be home to about a dozen coyotes.
These animals proliferate despite our fervent attempts to remove them.
In 48 of the 49 United States in which coyotes exist, there’s no daily limit to the number of coyotes a hunter may shoot. (Delaware hasn’t yet established its coyote hunt guidelines.) In most states, you can kill them year-round and, in a few cases, you don’t even need a hunting license to shoot one.
Beyond the no-limits hunting, numerous livestock-dependent communities hard-hit by coyote predation also hold “coyote derbies,” offering cash prizes for the most kills. Between hunters, derbies and removal of “problem” coyotes by state and federal agencies, Americans kill roughly 400,000 coyotes a year.
Yet experts believe there may be twice as many coyotes on the United States landscape now than there were 150 years ago.
The No. 1 predator
Part of the reason for that, of course, is that trapping, hunting and urban sprawl removed most or all of coyotes’ primary competitors, those larger predators understandably more feared by humans.
Wolves get far more press than coyotes.
Cougars are far more effective killers.
Bears are, well, much bigger and scarier-looking.
Yet when it comes to killing livestock and pets, no other predator comes close to coyotes, based on figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services.
That federal agency gets the call whenever animals kill livestock, attack pets or people or otherwise make enough of a nuisance of themselves that state wildlife officials decide they need to be removed.
In 2011, Wildlife Services lethally removed 83,195 coyotes.
That was more than the combined total of all badgers, beavers, bobcats, chipmunks, feral cats and dogs, deer, elk, feral goats, foxes, jackrabbits, marmots, minks, moles, moose, muskrats, nutrias, opossums, javelinas, porcupines, pronghorns, rabbits, raccoons, rats, shrews, skunks, weasels — and, yes, black bears (565 removed), cougars (398) and wolves (365).
“We’re not trying to eliminate the coyote. I’m not sure we really could if we tried,” says Ken Gruver, Wildlife Services assistant state director for Washington. “They’re a very abundant animal, and very capable of rebounding their populations.
“Coyotes remain the No. 1 predator we deal with.”
Small, but not cuddly
Coyotes are smallish, typically only 20 to 45 pounds as adults. Because of that, and their appearance as some sort of poorly-fed dog, people often find them cute — the kind of animal to which one tosses the last part of a picnic sandwich.
And that’s a big mistake.
“The important thing is to keep them wild,” Gruver says. “Don’t try to feed them. If you see them, run them off, scream at them. Keep them wild.”
Any community’s coyote problem, experts say, becomes worse anywhere they lose their fear of humans or, worse, begin to associate humans as a food source. Humans carry food that can be dropped. They walk pets that can quickly become a coyote pack’s meal.
“Coyotes learn to deal with humans. They live basically right in our back yards and walk down the streets,” Gruver says. Some “will learn that, at night, house cats can be running around. And there’s a certain amount of them that learn if somebody’s walking a small dog, if they run up and bark and nip at them, (the human) will drop the leash. Or if they nip at a kid, he’ll drop that sack lunch.
“We’re not by any means trying to kill every coyote in town or trying to tell people that every coyote is a bad one.
“But there’s a percentage of them that lose their fear of humans. And they can become a problem.”
They attack humans, too
On the very rare occasion, the problem can be a very bad one.
It’s no secret that cougars attack humans. There have been upwards of 110 documented cougar attacks on humans in North America in the last 120 years, more than half of them occurring since 1990 as more and more people live and recreate in the rural, wooded areas that serve as the big cats’ hunting grounds. At least 20 of those attacks have been fatal.
There have also been two fatal attacks by wild wolves in North America in the last century, each almost exhaustingly revisited online and by print and broadcast media — especially when the second was a 4-foot-11 schoolteacher mauled by wolves while on a late-afternoon jog, listening to recorded music on her ear buds.
What you probably don’t know is that coyotes have killed exactly the same number of humans in North America over the last century as those wild wolves.
In 1981, a coyote attacked and carried off a 3-year-old in a Glendale, Calif., driveway. The child’s father rescued the little girl, but she died from blood loss and a broken neck.
Three years ago, a 19-year-old Canadian folk singer — hiking a national park trail in Nova Scotia, Canada, while on break from a concert tour — was attacked and killed by a pack of coyotes.
So, yes, coyotes can occasionally be dangerous. More than 160 people have been bitten by coyotes in the U.S. since 1960.
But before we bar the doors and arm ourselves, remember that all of the fatal attacks on humans by coyotes, wolves and cougars are dwarfed by several much more dangerous assailants:
• dogs, who killed no less than 38 people in the U.S. last year alone and annually attack far more humans than do wolves, coyotes, cougars and bears combined;
• bees, with about 100 Americans dying from bee stings every year; and
• mosquitos, since the 286 U.S. deaths from mosquito-borne West Nile virus in 2012 were an all-time high.
The scary postscript
It’s no secret that wolves and dogs can and do mate, creating a hybrid that some people decide to keep as pets in a situation that rarely ends up well. Dogs and coyotes have also been known to produce offspring.
What happens if wolves and coyotes start getting together and making ... coywolves?
In some areas, most notably in the Northeastern U.S. and the Great Lakes region of Ontario, Canada, they already are.
A 2009 study analyzing DNA and skull measurements found that “hybridization events” between male eastern wolves and female coyotes were creating a next-generation coyote that was bigger and with a more-powerful bite than its predecessor, making it more capable of hunting larger prey, such as deer.
Wildlife biologists have no reason to believe that kind of wolf-coyote coupling is taking place in this part of the country, where gray wolves are more apt to kill coyotes as a simple act of territorial imperative.
But a lone wolf, splitting off from a pack in search of new territory? What happens when it finds no wolves but, instead, a pack of coyotes?
One such wolf, designated OR7 by federal biologists, in 2011 traveled from northeast Oregon into northern California where, says one biologist, “it was interacting with coyotes and tolerating their presence, which is kind of unusual for wolves.”
OR7 is back in southwest Oregon now, west of Klamath Falls, and there’s no reason to believe it or any other gray wolf has or would mate with a coyote.
“There’s no expectation they will. We’re not worried about it,” says Hilary Cooley, federal wolf carnivore coordinator for the Northwest region. “If it happens, we’ll figure out how we respond to it, but it’s not really a concern because we haven’t seen it in the Rockies before. They do breed with dogs, and that could be a problem.
“But not coyotes.”
Not yet, anyway.