Wildlife

Coyotes are Yellowstone’s Underdog

Cohabitating with coyotes in the park and possibly your own backyard.

Most visitors have one thing on their mind when they’re scanning the horizon in Yellowstone National Park looking for wildlife: wolves. At first glance, you might assume that the sandy-colored canid running across the Lamar Valley is a wolf, but look closely – it might be a coyote.

Coyotes are much smaller than wolves, usually around a third of the size, weighing 25-30 pounds and standing 16-20 inches at the shoulder. While there are less than 100 wolves that call Yellowstone home, the park’s coyote population is abundant.

While your initial reaction might be disappointment in not having spotted one of Yellowstone’s storied wolves, the creature you’re looking at is one of the most interesting and persecuted animals in North America.

Coyotes’ original homeland was the prairies and deserts of the Western U.S., but since 1900 they have expanded their range to include every U.S. state, except Hawaii, much of Canada, Mexico and even most of Central America. Chances are, whether you’ve noticed them or not, you may have a coyote as a neighbor.

Even large metropolises like New York City and Chicago have coyote populations. In 2015 one daring coyote was spotted strolling the rooftop of a bar in Queens. As of 2019, Chicago had a coyote population numbering more than 1,200.

Coyotes in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone
Coyotes in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone Photo: Grant Ordelheide

Coyote: Symbol of the West

In my home state of Colorado I’ve fallen asleep to coyote song in my tent in the Rocky Mountains, crossed paths with them while walking my dog in suburbia and watched, enrapt, as one clever coyote near my house sat on the side of a busy state highway waiting for a gap in traffic to cross the major thoroughfare. Coyotes have existed in the background of my life for as long as I can remember, like cottontail rabbits or dandelions – wild, leftover bits from a time before urban sprawl.  

Coyotes serve many purposes in ecosystems across the country. They help maintain small mammal populations everywhere from national parks to city alleyways. This, in turn, helps control vegetation growth, outbreaks of disease and more.

The tawny-colored canid, known by early explorers as the “prairie wolf,” has also become an important symbol in American cultures. Coyotes are a major mythological figure for nearly all Native American tribes, especially those in the West. Coyote played an important role in creation stories, as the main character in parables and as a clever trickster providing comic relief.

While white settlers might not have stories quite so old about Coyote, he still appears in a broader American cultural context. Wile E. Coyote chased the Road Runner on Saturday morning cartoons. A coyote’s howling silhouette advertises happy hour margaritas at a local cantina. And then there are our own personal experiences with coyotes – there aren’t many people I’ve met who don’t have a story of an encounter with the amber-eyed prairie wolf.

There’s just something about coyotes. Maybe it’s their haunting, yet achingly familiar song. Maybe it’s their calm and care-free demeanor. Maybe it’s the fact that they bring a little wild into our everyday worlds of manicured lawns and pavement.  

Howling coyote
Howling coyote Photo: Depositphotos

How Coyotes Have Adapted 

Dan Flores, author of Coyote America, likens coyotes to humans. Not only are their diets and climate needs incredibly adaptable, but so are their social structures. Coyotes can live solitarily or in packs, much like humans. What other creature has been able to so thoroughly colonize this continent? Maybe that’s what I find so fascinating about them.

One of the reasons coyotes have so successfully expanded their range across North America is that they are highly adaptable. They are omnivores and will eat what’s available. In Yellowstone, this includes small rodents like voles and mice, rabbits, carrion and newborn elk in the spring. In other parts of the country, they eat lizards and snakes or fruits and vegetables. When living amongst humans, they might eat trash or pet food left unattended.

Once wolves began to be driven out of the United States, and Yellowstone in particular, in the 1900s, coyotes moved in as competition dwindled for food sources. When wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995, they often killed coyotes in squabbles surrounding food and territory. For a time, this decreased coyote populations, especially in the Lamar Valley. Today, however, the coyote population has begun to rebound as the two predators have found their balance.

For an animal that shares humans’ adaptability, humans sure don’t like coyotes.

As white folks began settling the West, the mainstream narrative around coyotes began to change. These creatures that were once revered by Native Americans were turned into villains by white settlers. In the early 1900s coyotes, along with other predators like mountain lions and wolves, were even hunted and poisoned in Yellowstone by park officials.

After the United States government and private citizens waged a successful war against the gray wolf, eradicating it from most of the U.S. via traps, guns and poison, the coyote was the next target in their crosshairs.

This happened despite the fact that early in the 1900s biologists found that coyotes weren’t an important predator to elk and other big game in Yellowstone and across the West, according to biologist Adolph Murie. Surveys of their diets showed they rarely hunted adult elk, mule deer or antelope and he speculated that the evidence of them in coyote scat was likely mostly due to them eating carrion – already deceased animals. Murie found that elk, including carrion, only made up 20.3% of a coyote’s diet.

In 1999, a study published in Yellowstone Science showed that while coyote diets do still include elk, mostly calves and weak or sick adults, they only accounted for 21.2% of Yellowstone coyotes diets. The kill rate per capita for coyotes was only three, whereas that rate for mountain lions and grizzly bears were much higher, 36 and 13 respectively.

Furthermore, wolf reintroduction to the park changed coyote behaviors. In the 26 years that wolves and coyotes have again coexisted in the park, scientists have been studying the effects on coyotes. The Yellowstone Ecological Research Center and the Atlanta Coyote Project are working on a study they hope to publish soon showcasing how coyote diets have changed over the last two decades. 

Yellowstone Ranger Ted Ogsten and Chief Ranger Sam Woodring with coyote pelts; 1927
Yellowstone Ranger Ted Ogsten and Chief Ranger Sam Woodring with coyote pelts; 1927 Photo: NPS, Photographer Unknown

Threats to Coyotes Today

More than 100 years later, that age-old war on coyotes is still going strong. Today, more than 500,000 coyotes a year (that’s nearly one per minute) are killed in the United States. Of those, 60,000 are killed by the U.S. government, according to USDA Wildlife Services. 

Today, the federal government continues to exterminate coyotes, while private citizens have come up with a disturbing new tactic to attempt to eradicate them.

Wildlife killing contests are just what they sound like. Often targeted at predators like coyotes, prizes are offered up for participants who kill the most animals in a given time frame. The photos of these contests are chilling, coyote, wolf, or bobcat bodies piled high. What’s even more concerning? Fewer than 10 states have banned this brutal practice.

Humans have tried via poisoning, aerial gunning and trapping to exterminate coyotes from this continent for the better part of 200 years, yet today coyotes are thriving. They did not meet the same fate as their distant wolf cousins.

According to Coyote America, the reason behind this puzzling math is the coyote’s resiliency. The average litter size for a female coyote is just under six pups, but that number can swing wildly from as low as two pups a litter to as high as 19. Coyotes have a trait that helps them assess the environment around them. Once the landscape is at carrying capacity, or has as many coyotes living in it as it can support, coyote litters dwindle in size. However, if the ecosystem can support more coyotes, say, because humans are rapidly killing them, coyotes will start having larger litters.

Other evolutionary traits have also helped coyotes maintain their population size. If a pack loses its alpha female, younger females will start reproducing as early as 10 months old to ensure survival.

So, why has the war on coyotes continued well into the 21st century, when ecology shows that killing these tenacious prairie wolves only serves as an incentive for them to double down on their population expansion?

What started at the turn of the 20th century as misplaced fear that coyotes were hurting big game populations blossomed into fear that coyotes were hurting ranching operations by killing cattle and sheep and then, during the last few decades, a fear that coyotes were hunting pets.

Coyote and pet conflicts have been rising in the last few decades and the reasoning is complicated. In a recent study by the National Park Service and California State University Northridge, researchers found that in southern California urban settings, cats accounted for 20% of coyotes’ diets. That number dropped to 4% in suburban settings. Coyote attacks on pets aren’t always food motivated either. As small predators, coyotes may see your furry friend as competition. 

So, are coyotes really a major threat to our pets? The answer is it depends on where you live and if you and your neighbors are setting yourselves up for success or failure when it comes to coyote coexistence.

Coyote hunting for mice in the tall grass
Coyote hunting for mice in the tall grass Photo: Depositphotos

Coexisting with Coyotes

Many municipalities around the country, including where I live in Broomfield, Colo., are working on programs to help decrease coyote and human conflicts by promoting effective coexistence.  

The non-profit Project Coyote works to help educate communities about the threats predators like coyotes face today and how individuals can change their behaviors to help keep humans and pets safe and keep their coyote neighbors from being killed. 

According to Project Coyote, there are several steps you can take to help minimize conflicts in your neighborhood. 

Coyotes are naturally wary animals and to minimize conflicts, it’s important they stay that way. If they become too confident or, “habituated,” conflicts are more likely to occur. One of the most important things you can do is not feed coyotes. This means intentionally and unintentionally. The study of southern California urban and suburban coyotes found that human food sources accounted for 60-75% of coyote diets. Don’t leave pet food or trash outside unsecured. Coyotes also will often eat ornamental fruits from the trees in your backyard. Keep your yard clean of ripe or rotting fruits and vegetables and consider plants that don’t bear fruit for your yard to keep from attracting them. When coyotes associate your yard with food, whether that’s pet food, garbage or your landscaping, the chances of having a conflict with them increases. 

When you’re camping in Yellowstone, or other parks across the country, this same smart behavior also applies. While securing your food while camping is important to deter bears to avoid human conflicts, it also applies to other animals from coyotes to raccoons to squirrels.

Bear box at the Pebble Creek Campground in Yellowstone
Bear box at the Pebble Creek Campground in Yellowstone Photo: NPS/Neal Herbert

  

If you live in an area with coyotes, keep a close eye on small pets. When you’re out walking your dog, keep them on a leash to minimize coyote-dog conflicts. If you see a coyote when out walking, pick up small pets.

It might sound counterintuitive when we’re talking about protecting coyotes, but one of the best ways to protect them is to make sure they don’t get too habituated to people. If you see a coyote exhibiting bold behavior (approaching you, frequenting your yard or playgrounds) it’s important to haze it. This simply means scaring it away. Be big and loud, make lots of noise or spray it with a hose. This helps coyotes keep a healthy wariness of humans and avoid future conflicts with you or your neighbors. If you see a coyote exhibiting good behaviors, for example, hunting voles in an open space, give them some space and let them be. 

History has shown that coyotes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so it’s important that humans learn how to successfully cohabitate with these creatures from Yellowstone to our own backyards. Head to projectcoyote.com to get involved with local efforts in your community or to donate to help promote coexistence.