Often cast as villains, coyotes play important role in ecosystem
(Reprinted from above link)
Few animals can divide a roomful of people like the coyote.
Are coyotes — especially the eastern coyote, the kind we have around here — sneaky opportunists who prey on backyard chickens and small pets? Or do they play an important role in the ecosystem by helping to keep animal populations in check?
The answer is that eastern coyotes, like so many other things in nature, are a mix — helpful and harmful, innocuous and predatory, beneficial and a pain in the neck. And public sentiment is a mix as well.
“There are people in the landscape that fully despise the species and then there are people that absolutely adore the species,” said Patrick Tate, New Hampshire Fish and Game furbearer biologist. “Any animal in the environment is going to have that. Eastern coyote isn’t any different.”
The reaction to coyotes is so strong, in fact, that a program hosted by Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller in Woodstock and scheduled for next Saturday has already filled up. Anything to shed light on the species.
Coyotes have gotten quite a bit of press in the Twin States lately.
In New Hampshire, a bill to prohibit hunting when the species raise their young failed to make it out of committee in last month. It stalled partly because lawmakers were reluctant to legislate hunting seasons and partly because landowners and farmers said they feared the bill would prevent them from protecting their land and livestock.
Last year, Vermont passed a bill banning coyote hunting contests.
And earlier this month, a man and a woman were attacked by a rabid coyote in Salisbury, Vt. The attack ended when the man shot and killed the animal.
But even if coyotes are making headlines, that doesn’t mean they’re having more run-ins with humans, according to Fish and Game officials.
Coyotes sightings are “relatively consistent,” Tate said, adding that the stories change even less
“(You) can take an article from the 1970s and put 2019 on it. ... It’s very repetitive with that species,” he said.
The eastern coyote first came to the Twin States in the 1940s, said Kim Royar, a biologist with Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Department.
“Research has suggested that the coyotes who came into New York and Vermont entered through southern Canada and bred with wolves as they moved east,” Royar said.
The eastern coyote is quite different than the western breed that started migrating decades ago. Eastern coyotes are about 10 pounds larger, their coats have more variation, and their skulls are bigger, Royar said. They also live in packs, while western coyotes tend to go solo.
Coyotes helped fill the void left by the mountain lions, lynxes and wolves that were driven out of the region as settlers started turning forests into farmland.
“There was actually a bounty on all those (animals) in the late 1700s,” Royar said. Farmers could get $20 for showing proof that they killed one, a hefty sum at the time. “We basically expatriated the wolf and mountain lion.”
Unlike the mountain lion and wolf, coyotes are omnivores. When berries are abundant, for example, coyotes won’t eat as much meat. That might make them better neighbors for humans than the larger, more fearsome predators they replaced.
“It can be argued they’re filling the niche, but not the same niche,” Tate said. “The issue is that eastern coyote cannot impact prey the same way that a mountain lion or a wolf did.”
Both Tate and Royar described their states’ coyote populations as stable. The mammal self-regulates its population, based on how much food is available. Tate said N.H. Fish and Game records 50-60 calls a year (but he noted that not all calls appear in the department’s data set). Royar said the recent rabid coyote attack in Vermont was quite rare. They tend to be wary of humans and keep their distance.
“What we find is theoretically people really value a lot of these animals until they become what they consider to be a pest or they have some sort of conflict with them,” Royar said.
This can happen when a coyote sneaks onto a farm to kill a calf or makes off with a family pet, Tate said.
“The population does not like seeing eastern coyotes when they are behaving as a predator,” Tate said. “There are these situations that continue to happen over decades, and the species has earned a negative reputation because of that.”
Coyotes can be hunted year-round in both states, though they are not necessarily hunted for their meat. Coyote trapping season runs from Oct. 26 to Dec. 31 in Vermont. In New Hampshire, people can trap coyotes from mid-October to the end of March in certain wildlife districts and from the start of November to the end of March in others.
But trapping them isn’t so easy. Tate figures that for every 100 days a trapper checks a trap every day, he’s likely to harvest 1.5 coyotes. During the 2017-18 season, trappers in New Hampshire captured only 350. Wily indeed.
Conflict with coyotes occurs mostly in what Tate described as “forest-urban interface settings,” where humans live near forests where coyotes are common.
“Eastern coyotes have been noticed by many throughout the country that are becoming bolder,” Tate said. “They’re more likely to be visible in the daytime.”
When coyotes begin to associate humans as a food source, conflicts are likelier.
“They start to associate humans with positive things instead of negative things,” Royar said. “That’s when I think the public’s concern for living with these animals rises.”
So here’s the question again. Coyotes: friend or foe?
Depending on the circumstance, both.
“Know the risk associated with eastern coyotes,” Tate said. “Don’t negatively judge the species on things that you’ve heard or hearsay, and recognize that all wildlife — including eastern coyote — have a place on the landscape and the ecosystem.”
In a sense, people need to learn to live alongside coyotes.
“They play an important ecological role,” Royar said. “We really feel like they have been here and are here to stay.”
Liz Sauchelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3221.