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Predator control: Does it really work?

A few weeks ago our local Wyoming Game & Fish ungulate biologist held a public meeting to discuss the startling decline in our mule deer numbers. We’ve had several hard winters in a row, the worst being 2016-2017, a winter snowpack that locals hadn’t seen in over forty years. That winter was so difficult on our mule deer that as spring emerged, the amount of dead deer across the landscape was phenomenal. I hiked areas where every quarter mile I’d see a dead deer. And so it was a feast for emerging bears. The video below was taken mid-April 2017, just as bears were leaving their dens. This bear is so well-fed he looks like he’s going into hibernation, not coming out of.

 

Even this winter, although our snowpack was light December and January, February was intensely cold, with few days that cracked zero. The word from Game and Fish is that our herd objective (3 hunt areas) is 4000-6000 but the estimate is 2,900. An adjacent herd (6 hunt areas) objective of 9,600-14,400 is estimated at 6,900. And, according to G&F, the decline began even two years before winter 2016-2017.

 

Mule deer

Mule deer with fawn

Since I was snowed in and could not attend the public meeting, I spoke directly with the G&F biologist Tony Mong. Hard winters, and especially 2016, was acknowledged to be a major factor in the decline. I also found out that these two herds have never been robust, for reasons scientists have only recently discovered why—long migrations. In the last few years, these deer have been radio-collared as part of the Wyoming Migration Initiative. Researchers found they undertake a very long migration twice yearly into and out of the Park, among the longest in Wyoming mule deer herds. That alone takes its toll. I asked Mong if there had been a study on the low doe/fawn ratio to determine all factors. “Not yet.”

The following week I saw snowmobile tracks behind a locked Forest Service gate (foot traffic is allowed, though not vehicular traffic) that leads to winter elk habitat. I followed the tracks and found Wildlife Services (WS) was laying out bait on a small private inholding that’s surrounded by Forest Service lands. This is high country with windswept meadows, an area that bull elk especially like to frequent during winter months.

DSC01896.JPG

Some friends that were shed hunting told me WS was baiting for coyotes, then planned to return and helicopter shoot them. These efforts to kill coyotes in this area will continue on foot through June, although our deer leave the valley late April/early May for their migration. The WS coordinator for Cody told me a dozen coyotes were killed by helicopter last week.

Coyote hunting

Coyote hunting ground squirrels

Concerned, I again spoke with Mong. He told me G&F usually likes to do controls where deer drop their fawns, but these deer fawn in the Park or in wilderness so they cannot do controls there. This was their best shot, literally. Who was funding this? Not Game and Fish. Private sportsmen organizations, at least one of them from Pennsylvania.

Mong’s explanation made no sense. These coyotes weren’t even the ones living in the fawning areas, so why the effort for little to no return? Even the WS chief told me they might save 20-40 adult deer this year from predation out of the 2,900 in the herd.

coyote

Coyote on wolf-killed elk carcass

Coyotes in Wyoming are considered predators and don’t come under the purview of G&F, but under APHIS, Department of Agriculture. That means they are the easiest targets. Next though on the predator list, would be mountain lions and their three year review is coming up this year with the G&F Commission. The zone that encompasses both herds has a consistent yearly quota of 20 lions and is supposed to be a  “Source” zone for lions, which means exactly what it says (Source, Sink, and Stable are the three types of management for mountain lion zones in Wyoming). And I have to wonder if what’s next will be hunters crying out for more wolves to be killed in our zone which is a trophy hunt area next to Yellowstone?

 

Obviously there are a lot of factors that control deer populations, weather and habitat probably being the most significant. As these deer migrate into the Park, surfing the spring green wave, quality of habitat is of special importance. One biologist reminded me how the ’88 fires created lush habitat for deer and elk. Now, thirty years later, young trees have crowded out many of those areas. And massive beetle-kill has created forests of impassible downed timber.

Beetle kill

Beetle-killed white bark pines dead on high trail in the valley

Panthera Teton Cougar Project recently published a timely study on this subject. Mark Elbroch and his team looked at how age structure in mountain lions determines food preference. The PTCP found that younger lions tend to specialize on smaller prey and deer. While cats five years and older specialize on elk. His conclusion:

Since younger cats specialize on deer, rather than elk, heavily hunted populations of pumas may put more pressure on deer populations than an un-hunted population with a higher average cat age. (Elbroch’s emphasis)

Another long term study was done in Idaho from 1997-2003 where researchers systematically targeted removal of coyotes and mountain lions in order to grow a mule deer population, one which had similarly low doe/fawn ratio as in my area. The study increased hunting on lions and coyotes, employed WS to kill coyotes winter through spring, targeted coyote killing in fawning areas, and decreased human hunting on deer. In other words, it was very intensive as to predator control along with other factors analyzed. Their results in a nutshell:

Our experimental efforts to change mule deer demography through removal of their 2 top predators had minimal effects, providing no support for the hypothesis that predator removal would increase mule deer populations…Population growth rates did not increase following predator reduction as predicted.

Isn’t it time we applied hard science to agency decisions when it comes to predators instead of bowing to non-scientific, knee-jerk reactions as a public relations ploy for pleasing the hunting community that agencies are “doing something”? Interestingly, I met with our Wildlife Services director to ask about the scope of this project. He acknowledged habitat and weather were actually the foremost critical factors in ungulate population numbers. “But unfortunately, predators are the low-hanging fruit.” His words, not even mine.

Did ‘Limpy’ the Coyote survive?

Many mornings I venture out early and explore who’s been out during the night.

Sunrise

Sunrise

If nothing else, I’m guaranteed to see the elk, deer and moose.  Last night there seemed to be quite a party.  Plenty of coyotes and the wolves were moving around. Yesterday I saw a bald eagle fly into the valley.  There must be a kill around, but I could not find it.

I wish I could figure out the coyote territories in the valley.  I have a guess, based on howling and tracks, but its only a guess.  I suspect there are at least three different packs within the front valley itself.  It appears the pack sizes go up and down and I wonder how much the wolves have an impact on that. Some years there are many more wolves here, other years their numbers are down and the coyote numbers seem to jump up.  When the coyotes increase, I see less fox sign.  The coyotes have definitely gotten bolder over the years relative to their older brother, the wolf. Look at this example:

This coyote ran right over three wolf tracks

This coyote ran right over three wolf tracks

Last winter I spotted a lone coyote several times that had a badly injured left rear foot.

Here's the fellow.  Who knows what happened to his leg.

The lame coyote from last winter

The first time I saw him, he was hobbling through a field.  Then one early morning he was stealing some left-overs from a wolf kill.  No other canines were around.  He ‘ran’ with his prize through the field while I watched.  Leery of my presence, he made his way up the hillside into the trees to eat in peace.  I took some photos of his interesting and sad track.

The arrow points the direction he was headed

Last Year: The arrow points the direction he was headed.  The ‘dot’ is his injured leg’s imprint. One can see the trouble he is having by his difficult gait.

 

You can see the small imprint of his left hind leg.  The back legs are in front because he is running

Last Year:  You can see the small imprint of his left hind leg. The back legs are in front because he is running

This morning there were several groups of coyotes in different areas.  And one large grouping was around the area where I spotted ‘Limpy’ last year head for the hills with his stolen bone.  About 5 coyotes were running together, and one of them had a bad left rear leg!

Spot the limpy coyote.

This winter:  Can you Spot the limpy coyote?

Coyote running.  rear feet are in front of front feet.  Notice the 2nd print from top.  That is the left rear and its noticeably smaller

This winter:  Coyote running. rear feet are in front of front feet. Notice the 2nd print from top. That is the left rear and its noticeably smaller.  But compare this photo with the one from last winter. A more normal gait!

The foot is turned inward and the print is smaller meaning he can’t put so much weight on it.  Yet given the difference in last year and this year, he is able to put much more weight on it.  Last year that coyote was barely putting his foot on the ground.  Now he is using it!

Of course, I cannot be sure it’s the same coyote. But given that it’s the same rear left leg, and the coyote was spotted in the same general area, its a good possibility.  And if it is ‘Limpy’, now he, or she, is running with a pack instead of alone.  Now maybe he has had a happy ending after all!

Kye Oh Tay

The notion of the trickster and the culture hero, together, is fascinating to me.   Around the West, coyote was the hero of these tales.  In the Northeast it was Raven, and in the South and Eastern United States it was hare and rabbit.

But what is a trickster?  And what is a culture hero?  In reading about ‘culture hero’ definitions, it is a mythical animal or creature that brings important things into this world, such as the animals, or humans, or gives fire to humans and teaches them how to grow or find food.  Coyote fills this bill in many stories.

Coyote blends into the landscape with deer in background

And the trickster?  That is harder to define.  A trickster is the embodiment of opposites, of extremes.  He makes you laugh at the absurd, or at his foibles.  Jung described the trickster as the ‘shadow side of a culture’, all the things that you can’t admit to or hide now out in the open and that energy is expressed and released through story.

I am intrigued by the trickster, because no matter how much you read about it, the trickster is enigmatic and can’t be grasped.  Coyote stories remind me of a tradition I studied for some time–Tibetan Crazy Wisdom. These Enlightened Adepts taught through living paradox; their life and teachings (if they had a teaching at all) were expressions of their unconditional freedom.  They lived lives outside the conventional agreements of morality, religion and social contracts.  Their very existence in Time and Space exploded and confounded our idea of living as limited mortal beings.

Coyote, as creator and destroyer, rogue, knave, fool, giver of fire to humans but also of birth and death is the Crazy Adept of many American Indian cultures.

Coyote hunting ground squirrels

But what is interesting to me is simply how confounded I am when I read Coyote stories.  I think “I don’t get it” and that is exactly it.  It is funny and silly yet profound and sacred at the same time.  There is a depth that is untouchable and indescribable.  And still my question remains “why Coyote?”   We can tell the story about how coyote has defied extermination by the White Man, and lived to spread ten-fold instead.  Or how he might follow a trapper, dig up his traps, urinate them and run off to the hills.  Surely these tell of Coyote’s cunning.  But I suspect the native peoples understood many more attributes of coyotes that white men overlook because our culture has seen them only as pests and predators to be extirpated.

Coyote catching grasshoppers

In choosing Coyote as their culture hero and trickster, native peoples have bestowed a great honor as well as power to this creature.  Coyote is given the power to stop the mind just as the Zen Masters’ stick might give the blow of Enlightenment to his student.  Coyote frees us from stodgy mind, creating an opening for creativity, inspiration, and True Religion.  Coyote embodies our dualistic nature, Yin and Yang, Good and Evil, Form and Formless.  In the embrace of Paradox, we are Free.  Coyote is here to guide us through his Crazy Wisdom, his Tricksterness, beyond Time and Space.

That is a great power.  And so I am still puzzled, speechless, and confounded by The Trickster–and that is as it should be, I suppose.  I feel that I need to observe and understand coyote more deeply so that his hidden blessing will be revealed.

It was a cold night. Winter was beginning to set in.  My window was slightly cracked and, at 2am, I awakened to the songs of a ‘Medicine Dog’–a lone coyote howling just outside near the front lawn. Since Koda has lived here, the coyotes take a different route home at night, so this was a rare visitation.  In my sleepiness, it seemed like the right thing to howl back.  After some responsive singing between us, it became clear that this was a pup of the year, calling for his pack and I was only confusing him, so I stopped singing his songs back to him.  And sure enough there soon came faint replies far up the mountain from where the coyotes den in the spring. The teenager took off to meet his brothers and I fell soundly and happily back asleep.

Coyote as Creator

Several weeks ago, while botanizing, I noticed a dead-end steep drainage with a series of picturesque hoodoos.  It drew me and I decided to hike up and explore.  The drainage was thin and narrow with steep sides, so I was following up the bottom.  Although the nearby creek was full of run-off, this little tributary was dry yet there was vegetation as well as a series of downed dead trees.

As I rounded a curve, about six small balls of furry things ran quickly across the drainage for cover.  What were they?  Too big for marmots or squirrels and the wrong color, not moving like rabbits, it took me a moment to wipe my eyes and decide what I was seeing.  Pups!  Yes.  And they were just the cutest things you’ve ever seen, scurrying back to their den for cover.  One little guy got caught up in some dead branches and was trying hard to get over them.

Area around den. A perfect spot

I paused for a moment when they had disappeared, thankful their parents were nowhere in sight because I had the dog with me.  Koda was a good boy.  He saw their fluffy things and, in his curiosity, wanted to investigate but he obeyed and kept close by me.  I retreated from the area right away, worried about their parents returning, the dog and my smell causing their parents to move to another den site.

These pups, from a URL, are about the same size as what I saw

O.K., I said to myself, were they wolf pups or coyote pups?  It all happened so fast, but as I thought it through I realized they were all the same tawny brown color, a definite sign they were coyotes, and I guessed they were about 5 or 6 weeks old, just by having been around dog puppies enough to discern their bodies and skill set.

Interesting, with the late spring and all the snow this winter, everything is late.  Two years ago on Mother’s Day, early May, I saw some coyote pups that looked about 12 weeks old.  And here it was late June, and these little guys were only 6 weeks old.

Coyote pup mother's day 2009

A few days ago I ventured back.  Coyotes leave their den when their pups are around 8 weeks old and I figured they’d be gone.  Just to make sure, I negotiated a route from the back way.  Instead of up the drainage, I came from high up on the top of the hillside where I could look at the site from above.  I sat for quite a while and glassed the den area.  When I was fairly sure there was no activity, I went and explored.

The den

The area right in front of the den, as pictured above, was clean as a whistle.  I used my watch and shown some light inside the den.  It too was immaculate–no bones or feces.  There was another smaller opening nearby, and I understand that coyotes usually have a second entrance. The front entrance was about 12″x 14″.  In the drainage directly below, under the debris of downed trees, scads of old bones and feathers lay around, and piles of scat.  There were at least 3 deer skulls, but they were so old that I figured this den had been used quite a few times before.

Den in size relation to Koda. He would never be able to enter

I picked through some of the feathers.  Songbirds, flickers, an owl and even a red-tail hawk. These parents were good hunters.

As I went on my way to continue searching for plants, I remembered something.  Last year I took an early spring hike up this valley with a friend.  The main valley goes far and narrows into dense forest with a year-round stream running through it.  On our way up, we spied a coyote carrying a deer leg in the direction of this den.  Could it have been one of the same parents?  It was the right time of year.  Maybe I caught a glimpse of the mom or dad.

Phacelia

Shapeshifter

This is a great documentary, free online, by Canadian Geographic on coyotes.  Humans have been trying to eradicate coyotes for years, unsuccessfully.  In fact, whereas coyotes were confined to a small area of the West a hundred years ago, now they are ubiquitous, all over North America, from cities to suburbs, on islands and the countryside.  Why, no matter how much humans have trapped, shot,and  poisoned coyotes, do they come back in greater numbers than before?

Coyote hunting ground squirrels

Here in the GYE, wolves were eradicated by the 1930’s.  Since then, coyotes have been the bane of the sheep, cattle, chicken, and any other type of rancher.  Coyotes are considered ‘varmits’ and can be shot on sight in Wyoming.  Coyotes used to be blamed for all the troubles.  With the reintroduction of wolves, now wolves are blamed.  But if you want to keep coyotes under control, then you need to have wolves around.

According to YNP biologist Bob Crabtree who has been studying coyotes since before wolf reintroduction, since wolves came on the scene in Yellowstone, there has been an 80% reduction in the coyote population.  Coyotes are the oldest indigenous species in North America, some 3 million years old.  Their arch enemy is the Wolf.  Over the thousands of years of dealing with wolves, coyotes have become cunning and adaptable under that stress.  They have developed highly sophisticated strategies of dealing with high mortality rates.  For one, they breed rapidly when under attack and produce more litters.  For another, they can feed up and down the food chain.

Coyote pup

Each year in Yellowstone 1/3 of the coyotes are killed.  This makes the survivors much smarter:  Super Coyotes.  And although wolves are their nemesis, they also provide a smorgasbord of food.  Coyotes in Yellowstone mostly eat ground squirrels.  It takes a few to make a good meal.  But when wolves kill large prey, the wolf pack will eat their fill and leave the rest.  Coyotes can take advantage of their leftovers, which is like eating 100 ground squirrels.

Coyotes taking advantage of a wolf kill

So it pays to stick around the wolves, but not too close.  This stress has produced powerful survival skills. It seems coyotes evolved to do better in a state of flux.

Humans created conditions for coyotes that have allowed them to populate all of North America.  They’ve killed off their primary enemy, the wolf.  They’ve cultivated fields and created open spaces.  They’ve filled those open spaces with nice plump meat to raise pups with.  And by putting stress on coyotes through trapping and killing, humans are acting like wolves, making the coyotes breed more rapidly.

Everyone I know has a story about coyotes in the city and suburbs, close and strange encounters, bold coyotes.  I’ve watched coyotes kill a deer right next to a house.  I’ve  seen them lounging mid-day on the grass in a cemetery.  I know a friend whose daughter was walking her dog in the open space of Marin County who became surrounded by coyotes.  She started singing and they left.

Urban coyote rests mid-day in local cemetery

 

Singing brings up a good point.  Biologists who are studying coyotes in urban areas say, since we can’t eradicate them, we will need to learn to live with them.  One biologist says “They are teaching us things maybe we don’t want to learn yet.”  As top predators in an urban environment, there is a ‘nervous harmony’ that can be adapted to.  Humans need to learn to just scare coyotes away–use a hose, shout, sing, water pistols–make those coyotes think “These humans are so unpredictable”.

The documentary had some interesting things to say about the eastern coyote.  It seems they are growing bigger.  DNA studies reveals the eastern coyote is mating with the smaller Eastern (as compared with the larger grey wolf of the west) Wolf to create a super top predator–smarter, wilier, more adaptable.  It seems ancient Native Americans understood Coyote much better than us modern humans when they described him as ‘the trickster’, the ‘shapeshifter’.

I applaud Coyote.  Humans have taken over every inch of North America, as well as the entire world.  Rats, cockroaches, and a few other smaller species thrive around humans.  But Coyote is the only large predator that has adapted and fully populated all of our environments.  He truly is more cunning than us!

Coyote hunting voles

A brilliant and frigid day

Its -14 degrees tonight at only 7 pm.  Today it was a clear beautiful day and the mercury never got above -1 degrees F.  I got bundled up and went out for a ski, but my new skis have a big problem with their bindings.  I tried for 20 minutes and never got my shoes to hook in, but I got pretty cold in the process.  So I abandoned that idea, threw on my snow shoes, and headed out on the trail by the creek.

An enormous sun-dog, or halo, circled the sun.  The sky was clear blue and the air was so cold you could literally see ice crystals flying by.

Over the bridge there were some old coyote tracks.  This coyote was using a rotary lope.  He switches from one side to the next as you can see from the photo.  Maybe he picks up the pace over the bridge because he’s so exposed with out cover on either side.  I’m working hard on studying gait so I was thrilled to see and recognize this one.

Coyote lopes across the bridge. Notice change from one side to the next

Usually this walk has lots of wolf tracks but none today.  A moose has been walking around the willows

Moose droppings and tracks

.  I find an area near tree cover where several moose lay down.  At first I thought these might be a group of elk, but only moose scat was around and the bed measured 60″–too big for an elk.  Laying in that deep snow, a moose or an elk creates a deep depression with their weight and body heat.  The lay becomes a natural snow cave, insulating them and keeping them warm.

I watched a dipper feeding and bathing.  Wow they are stout little things.  It was so cold my hat was icing up and this bird was hanging in the stream.  Ice flowed by him.

Dipper

On the way out, the elk were spending their resting time mid-day in the upper meadows.  They were there yesterday too when it was just as cold but cloudy.  Usually they hide mid-day in the trees.  I wondered why they were hanging on the hillsides, exposed, during these bitter cold days.  On the way home, around 3:00, they were already out and grazing. Usually when the deer and elk feed early, that’s a sign of a storm coming.  Maybe they know something I don’t.

Why are the elk resting in the meadow mid-day?

On the way up to my cabin, I see a young cow moose running bye.  I suppose its a very cold and moosey day.

Moose by my house

Bald eagles, coyotes and a kill

An old cow elk broke her leg trying to get over the fence when a car drove bye.  Didn’t take long for the predators to bring her down.  Yesterday early morning I drove up the road and found 5 coyotes on a kill.  Usually coyotes can’t bring a large elk down, but they might have in this case.  She was an easy kill.  Since I didn’t see any wolves around and the carcass was less than half eaten and still warm, not frozen, I assumed they were the culprits.  I watched them for over a good hour. One dominant coyote was chowing down.  Another bold coyote kept slinking around, trying to get in a few bites, but the big male wouldn’t have it.

Once the male got his fill, he’d go off somewhere, leaving the carcass for the secondary prowler.  She or he started tugging and pulling off the meat.  She got in about five or ten minutes before Mr. Big Man came back who then, with some posturing and fighting, threw her off.  Three other coyotes, not so bold, hung out in the trees.

Coyotes waiting their turn

Two beautiful Bald eagles waited in the trees, along with several Golden Eagles.  I watched a Golden and a Bald tug at each other in mid-air before going to their respective perches.  Of course, tons of magpies and crows waited.

It was cold outside, about 5 degrees.  I came back in the late afternoon, hoping to get some closer photos of the Bald eagles.  By now it was hovering near 0 degrees.  A beautiful Bald Eagle sat in a leafless aspen along with a Golden and some crows.  I zigzagged closer and closer.  I kept shooting and wondered how close I could get before she took flight.  I’ve actually seen this pair of Balds hanging around the valley a few weeks ago.  I knew the dog could get real close without disturbing her.  After all, the dog is essentially like the wolves or coyotes that she tolerates around kills.  In fact, I’ve watched coyotes eating a carcass with the crows around, or even a Bald eagle chasing a coyote off a kill.

Just when I saw her get a little ruffled and ready to fly, I backed away.  My hand on the camera was freezing!  Numb.

I drove up the road, watched the elk for a time in the beauty of the chilled sunset, then drove back home.  It was getting dim.  The birds, all of them, were gone.  The kill still there.  I wondered–where did those eagles go at night.  They’d been sitting out there all day, in fact I’d watched them for over an hour without them moving.  The cold didn’t bother them.  But they’d gone somewhere to bed down.  Where does a bird that big go to rest for the evening?

0 degrees sunset