Debate on coyote hunting raises more questions than answers.

(Public Domain Image)

2018 started off with fury in New Hampshire as local animal rights groups petitioned the NH Fish & Game Department with demands to mandate a closed coyote hunting season. The submitted petition to close the season garnered fewer than 200 signatures. The Department’s biologists presented a proposal to close the year-round coyote hunting season (primarily during birthing and pup rearing months) in an attempt to stave off the rally cries of animal rights groups and their sympathizers. The Department’s biologists reported that the presenting of this season change was prompted directly by the above-mentioned petition, and not under any scientific information with regard to coyote populations or sustainability in the shadow of a year-round hunting season. The Department’s law and rule making commission voted to table the proposal until state appointed biologists could garner more data on coyotes in NH. The group behind the petition championed a cache of “scientific data” on modern wild canid biology as the “smoking gun” to put an end to all forms of predator management. In the wake of the commission’s decision, this supposed “scientific data” was unearthed and kicked to the forefront after years of simmering and lying dormant in the recesses of modern national wildlife management beliefs and logistics. So like any good citizen scientist, I took to my internet machine to track down the supposed data. What I found left me more befuddled than I was when I started my knowledge quest.

Adaptation to Survival.

The Eastern Coyote has reigned supreme as a skilled and highly adaptable predator in the Northeast since the extirpation of wolves in the 1930s. Once regarded as a cryptic legend known by locals as “coywolves”, The Eastern Coyote is a creature that has long since been steeped in mystery and lore in greater New England. Through modern research, we have determined the beast which now roams New England’s woods and suburbs is a genetic hodgepodge; where individuals may hold varying amounts of wolf, domestic dog, and western coyote DNA. The longstanding belief has been that western coyotes migrated north and east in the absence of wolf pressure. In the process, they interbred with remaining wolves in Canada before dropping back down into New England as a subspecies with a melting-pot of genetic diversity. Due to this “DNA soup” of varying traits, Eastern Coyotes can range in size and color dramatically amongst individuals; with some yielding anywhere from 30-70lbs, and having coat colors that range from brown, black, blonde or gray, and any variation in between. Today in New Hampshire, witnessing coyotes that rival German Shepherds in size isn’t out of the norm – a far cry from their smaller western cousins. It also explains the Eastern Coyote’s ability to hunt and stalk large prey in family groups, similar to wolves. The education on Eastern Coyote, and WHAT exactly it is, has been slow to reach the masses of the New England public, and many folks still tell tales of bearing witness to a “wolf” running through their backyards or across highways. A flare up of media reports a few years ago boasted of a new “hybrid super species” of canine sweeping across the Northeast, little did these media outlets know they were simply reporting on the Eastern Coyote – which has been here in healthy and growing numbers for decades.

There are several beliefs regarding the importance (or lack thereof) with regard to coyotes on the landscape today. Many folks revere the Eastern coyote as a pest. A non-native transient killing-machine comparable to milfoil weeds - a mongrel not worthy of any game management protections or provisions. On the other side of the spectrum are folks who regard the coyote as a canine comparable to our domestic pets – one which bears the need for special protections from hunting. Somewhere in the middle are the rest who feel that while the coyote is a highly adaptable wild canid which has done well to fill a niche void in the food chain, its populations should still be managed and regulated like so many other species. On the subject of regulation, it’s important to point out that while many states don’t have a closed firearm hunting season on coyotes, fur trapping and night hunting activities do in fact have closed seasons in many areas (including New Hampshire), where the regulated take and harvest revolves around the cooler months of the year when fur pelts are prime and practical to procure.

Science is validated with one important factor - context. 

Eastern coyote traits and their relation to their pure wolf cousin ties directly with the current debate mentioned above, and how, exactly, to maintain and manage this species. Throughout the 1990s, a big push was garnered to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone Park, and other areas of the west where they once had strong-holds. After wolves were reintroduced to the park, they began to drop elk populations significantly. This in turn reduced browsing, which accommodated a plethora of other species, enhancing the landscape with new ecosystems. It’s an idea referred to as Trophic Cascade, a model which reflects a pyramid with top predators having a direct impact down the line to beneficiaries at the bottom of the pyramid. The Trophic Cascade model however, has negative consequences when misinterpreted. This idea, coupled with the perceived “benefits” wolf populations provided for Yellowstone after their reintroduction, has been badly abused by some who now think there shouldn’t be any management or regulation of canid species on the North American landscape. The events that took place in the west on the heels of wolf reintroduction have become a wobbly soap box for environmentalist groups to champion a hands-off management approach to all predator species. The flaw with the Yellowstone Wolf theory is that the rest of the country, including New Hampshire, is not Yellowstone. For one, there was no hunting permitted in Yellowstone, which allocated for higher densities of elk. There’s virtually no human impact to account for mortalities through habitat loss, hunting, or vehicle collisions. Second, the wolves of Yellowstone, while related to Eastern coyotes, are NOT coyotes. We hunt our ungulate species in New England, and we have a varied canid predator, not a pure-bred wolf. The top-down Trophic Cascade model has been so badly abused by animal protectionists that even here in NH, the argument has been used by these groups to sell and sway the closing of seasons on everything from coyotes to bobcats, and even beavers.

How about “responsive reproduction”? Ever heard of it? It’s an idea that coyotes who are hunted regularly will respond to that hunting pressure by sending their reproduction systems into hyper overdrive, which will in turn cause a hunter or landowner to be left with more coyotes then they started with. That’s, of course, how some protectionist groups try to spin it at least. There are several different variants to the theory, depending on which circle you follow – some theorize it’s more closely related to removal of alpha members within a coyote “pack” that will turn subordinate females into breeding machines, which seems to distort facts from decades-old research mirroring similar findings. In any case, the true biologists behind these studies clearly laid out that their findings were based on “perfect condition” scenarios, and while there is some possible truth behind the responsive reproduction argument, it has been twisted and marginalized from its original intent and meaning. Many of the early studies I’ve uncovered regarding “responsive reproduction” in coyotes links directly to man’s old-world attempts to fully eradicate the species. Bounties and hunting contests were promoted extensively to quell the expanse of coyote populations Nationwide throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Several studies were churned out from the 1970s to the 1990’s suggesting that full-scale eradication of the coyote was failing miserably, due in part, according to some, to the “responsive reproduction” theory.

Almost every examination of coyote reproduction seems to refer to an extensive study conducted by Longhurst and Connolly in 1975. Guy Connolly himself contends that those who use his findings to oppose coyote management do so “inappropriately and out of context”. Connolly further suggests there is little correlation between removing coyotes, and heightened reproduction, and states “people who claim otherwise are just damaging their credibility.” Dr. Eric Gese, Professor (USDA National Wildlife Research Center, Predator Behavior and Ecology) comments that the suggestion of responsive breeding is “over simplified and unproven.”

A pair of coyotes travel through snow-packed hardwoods in West Virginia (Public Domain Image).

The Devil's in the Details.

The devil’s in the details. What we can all agree on is that all wildlife populations are “regulated” to some degree. When food abundance is low, it will reflect in offspring survival, and as suggested by several studies, will impact the reproduction of wild canids. When populations are high, Mother Nature churns out disease, starvation, and other factors to drop those numbers – this is common knowledge, and is a supporting pillar for sustainable wildlife management which seeks to regulate these swings in populations through regulated hunting & trapping activities. It’s the age-old concept of “carrying capacity”, and scrutiny over the details of “responsive reproduction” has become a battleground between preservation extremists and sustainable-use conservationists. Independent biologists and state game agencies seem to be increasingly caught in the middle. One could determine that the idea of “self-regulation” is just a polite way of saying animals starve to death after having eaten all other available food sources. Wildlife management seeks to balance wild species and man’s direct impact, not stack the deck in favor of wild predators.

Science seeks to inform and comprehend understanding. It’s a concept that is independent, and asserts the chips will fall where they may. Pseudoscience, by contrast, seeks to scrounge for little bits and pieces of data to correlate and reinforce an agenda, then herald a perceived discovery whether the pieces of the puzzle actually fit together or not. It’s a safe bet to assert that coyotes aren’t Gremlins; they won’t multiply by the hundreds if you get ‘em wet. If you have 10 coyotes in a given area, and 4 are flattened under car tires, you will not end up with 18 the next day. While it is known that Eastern coyotes tend to rely more on social structure within a family unit, there is no documented science (that I’m aware of) to show that regulated hunting and trapping somehow adversely impacts their numbers; whether we’re talking long term breeding densities or overall population stability. Bottom line, eradicating coyotes isn’t feasible by today’s regulated hunting standards. On the flip side of that coin, I have yet to uncover any data that suggests we must end all sustainable use of a furbearing resource for fear of a global coyote takeover. Modern hunting and trapping of wildlife was developed with this concept rolled into it – sustainable use of natural resources without long-term adverse impact.

Where We Stand.

There's very little debate that there is still more to be learned about this hybrid species. Its also a safe bet that whether some folks like it or not, the canis latrans var is here to stay. Personally, I tip my hat to a creature that has managed to adapt and thrive in the face of such adversity and scrutiny. The eastern coyote, or a genetic variant thereof, has successfully established itself from the wild regions of Canada and Alaska, to the congested streets of Long Island, and every forest grove, mountain top, and suburban neighborhood in between. While I admit I don’t have a definitive position on the year-round hunting of coyotes, I will say with certainty that I applaud NH Fish & Game’s decision to table discussion on impacting hunting regulations until the proper science has been conducted to better understand the creature we’ve come to know as the Eastern Coyote. I certainly don’t support the emotional knee-jerk reaction of tightening restrictions on management due to outcry from groups who are completely intolerant to any and all hunting activities. I, like countless other conservationists, want what’s best for all wildlife, rather than to hold hierarchy over a chosen few. The Northeast region of America is clearly in dire need of new, impartial, up-to-date data on Eastern Coyote biology.

Public Domain Image