God’s dog or devil’s demon: Maybe just grit • Nevada Current

In 1958, Hope Ryden (1929-2017) was a flight attendant on Pan American Airway’s first jet transatlantic flight. In 1983 she flew that route again on Pan Am’s 25th year commemorative flight in celebration of the inauguration of transatlantic jet travel.

Her life and legacy are not defined, though, by being a flight attendant. Instead, she had a long and distinguished career as a naturalist extraordinaire, photographer, film producer and author of books about beaver, bobcats and wild horses among others.

God’s Dog: A Celebration of the North American Coyote, her classic book published in 1972, remains highly popular with fans of coyote literature.  

For two years, she camped in remote parts of Wyoming and Montana, including several weeks living in a van on the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming, from which she could covertly observe undisturbed coyote families conducting their affairs.

Her long-term relationship with members of a ranching family living near Powell, Wyoming who befriended her was instrumental in helping a New York City resident become an expert in coyote ecology and knowledgeable about all matters Western.

Her writing style was naturalistic in tone, full of delightful field observations, biological information and inspirational descriptions about how a remarkable animal lives its life. 

J.Frank Dobie (1888-1964) was a Texan, through and through, who wrote many books about various aspects of rural Texas life in the early 1900s.  Some viewed him as a gadfly.  President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom four days before Dobie died.

He had a fondness for the Texas Longhorn and wrote extensively about the animal.  Rattlesnakes also received his literary scrutiny.

His stellar book, The Voice of the Coyote, published in 1949, contained an incredible wealth of stories, anecdotes, mythology, biology and tales about the wily nature of the animal, its resilience, cleverness and grudging admiration extended to it even by its human adversaries.

Old Crip, a coyote missing 2 toes on one front foot and the entire foot on the other side (chewed off in a trap), made the pages because she was legendary for her ability to evade her pursuers for a year and a half before her end.

Because Dobie was writing about coyote stories and lore from the early 1900s, his book is a curious mixture of demonic accusations offset by long-lived elaborate and entertaining mythology and cultural lore.

The dominant characteristic of the coyote painted by Dobie is pure grit – a mixture of cleverness and perseverance possessed by few others.

How much grit?

Not described by Dobie since it was unknown and unappreciated at the time, is the astonishing ability of the coyote to sustain and even increase its population in the face of extreme adversity.

According to most maps, the original home range of the North American coyote was limited to the western plains’ states and western U.S.  After wolves were eliminated from the West, coyotes expanded their range from the Alaska border to the Panama Canal.

That expansion of home range did not go unnoticed by the animal’s adversaries. 

From 1945-1972, the federal government along with Western states attempted – and failed – to exterminate the coyote in the West by instituting a massive poisoning campaign on public lands using Compound 1080.  

This highly toxic substance is lethal for any organism that requires oxygen to survive.

Nevada used more Compound 1080 bait stations than any other state in the West – over 2,000 of them – in the early 1960s when the poisoning campaign was at its peak.  

(A bait station was a quarter of a cow or horse laced heavily with Compound 1080, deposited somewhere on public lands, and left for months. Strychnine and thallium, a poisonous heavy metal, were also used. Secondary poisoning of other species was a big problem.)

President Nixon signed a ban on widespread indiscriminate use of Compound 1080 in 1972. 

Sadly, wildlife management agencies around the West appear to have learned nothing from this failed 27-year poisoning campaign. The ‘war’ on coyotes continues to this day, doomed to failure and oddly, perhaps, with a contrary effect.

Things no better in Nevada.

The Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC), a politically appointed body overseeing the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), provides no exception. 

NBWC created the Wildlife Damage Management Committee which prepares an annual document, the Predation Management Plan. 

This plan contains so-called projects – now numbering in the high 40s – which detail how certain monies will be spent in accordance with commission policy and state law – to manage ‘predatory wildlife’.  

Until recently, 80% of the monies funding these projects had to be spent on ‘lethal control’ – that is – killing coyotes, mountain lions and ravens – and occasionally raccoons and the like, regardless of a showing of need or benefit.

Projects 14 & 15, a 5-year coyote killing effort during the mid-2000s south of Ely and northeast of Pioche in eastern Nevada was a prime example.

The assumptions behind Projects 14 & 15 were that mule deer numbers in those areas should be higher and that coyotes were responsible by consuming deer fawns.

(Curiously, a well-designed study in southern Idaho by the Idaho Fish and Game agency during the same time frame showed that coyotes preferred rabbits to deer fawns.)

After spending about $200,000 in 5 years to kill over 1,100 coyotes, the wildlife commission saw no measurable benefit to mule deer in either area.

While that result was not surprising – even predictable by those not obsessed with demonic mythology about coyotes – that was not the end of the story.  

Usually, in such projects around the West, the only question to be answered is whether mule deer numbers increase after killing coyotes, mountain lions, or in other states, wolves and bears.

Those animals slain – coyotes killed can number in the thousands – are simply discarded as trash, dumped in the desert.

In this case, though, something remarkable happened – almost unheard of, really.  

A NDOW biologist and a graduate student decided to look at certain characteristics of all coyotes killed over the 5 years. They found some interesting things:

  • During the third, fourth and fifth years, three times the number of coyotes were killed each of those years compared to the first year of the project.
  • The average coyote litter size tripled by the fourth year.
  • The average age dropped about half by the 5th year (from about age 3 to about age 1.5).
  • The male/female ratio shifted to a male predominance.

Projects 14 & 15 shifted a stable adult coyote population in year one to a larger juvenile population with a male predominance at the end of year five.

Although the researchers did not consider the ramifications of this shift, it is reasonable to assume that in year five, a coyote population in an area comprised largely of juveniles with a male predominance, lacking the stability and predictability of a home range and pack structure, might present a higher risk of suburban/urban conflicts with humans over pets and domestic livestock than would be the case if the disruption had not occurred.

(‘Compensatory reproduction’ is one term coined to refer to the population dynamics just described though the mechanisms involved are best described elsewhere.)

After doing their analysis and writing up their results in a professional manner suitable enough for publication, the paper ended up in a drawer at NDOW for a few years until an unnamed person thought it deserved the light of day.

Why, you might ask, would such an interesting and informative study be shelved in that manner by a state agency?

One answer is simple.

The results are embarrassing for those who hold the false belief that killing coyotes will increase deer populations.

There is also the matter of destroying public property (coyotes are part of the public wildlife trust) for no good reason.

Perhaps the biggest embarrassment, oblivious to those who complain about and demonize the coyote for various transgressions, might be phrased like this:  What do you expect when you randomly and intensively kill coyotes and, in the process, create a juvenile population well supplied with males?  

Are you not part of the very problem about which you complain?

Truly, Nevada citizens need and deserve an enlightened state coyote management plan, based on well-established science supported by plenty of objective data.  We have nothing now.

Shouldn’t we ask our state wildlife agency to do better?

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