Northeast Coyote Management: NH H.B. 442 Revisited

Coyotes in North America appear to be making headlines lately. What with South Carolina proposing a $75 dollar bounty on their heads, famous singer Leeann Rimes’ dog fatally attacked outside her LA home last week, and Montreal experiencing a surge in attacks (19 attacks on humans in 2 years); its no surprise the wiley canids are a topic of discussion in one fashion or another. While most folks are discussing the rise in problems with coyotes, lawmakers in one Northeast state are calling for more protections.

As we reported a few weeks ago, House Bill 442 is currently floating around in New Hampshire’s state house. The bill mandates a closing to coyote hunting from April 1st through August 31st, to coincide with what the bill states are “pup rearing” months.

With the exception of nuisance or damage control situations, fur bearing species like the coyote are typically pursued by hunters and trappers during the fall and winter months; outside of the birthing seasons when pelts are prime and management by take is less impactful. In fact, New Hampshire has a closed trapping season - running from Fall through Mid-winter.

Its worthy to note right up front that New Hampshire isn’t the first state to impose protections on coyotes through political force. The state of Connecticut implemented a similar shortening or “closure” to coyote hunting in their not-so-distant past. It wasn’t long until Connecticut DEEP wildlife biologists supported eliminating this newly closed hunting period after a noticeable increase in coyote conflict was becoming painfully clear. DEEP professionals stated this decision was made in part to allow residents to take coyotes during a time of the year they deemed “most beneficial in reducing impacts on other wildlife species”, and facilitating control opportunities on agricultural farms experiencing coyote “damages”.

Also noteworthy, New Hampshire’s current season is in line with 42 other states. It would appear current hunting seasons are not negative population drivers of coyotes; therefore, a need for immediate legislative restriction of the current management policy, from a sustainability standpoint, would appear not quite warranted.

The immense polarization of opinion surrounding coyote biology, and, the animal itself, creates a very difficult position for many on both sides of the debate.

The reality is that various segments of society attach different values to coyotes. While some believe the animal deserves full protections, others feel the eastern coyote (canis latrans var) is nothing more than a non-native invasive pest. It is undoubtably a larger variant of its smaller western cousin - a hybrid coyote species with revolving genetic mixes of wolf, western coyote, and dog DNA. This creates an added dilemma in management technique regarding a predatory species that can sometimes rival German Shepherds in size, promote unparalleled adaptability to suburbanization among humans, and an opportunistically varied diet.

Frankly, we still don’t know as much as we should about the eastern coyote - and as the creature continues to adapt and evolve, we may never fully catch up.

Where HB442 has caught my attention is with the supposed “science” put forth by die-hard supporters of the bill’s hunting closure. So I decided to revisit some of the questionable misconceptions behind the arguments supporting HB442.

A “Response” to Responsive Reproduction

Its painfully clear that at least part of the motivation behind the drafting of HB442 was due to the perceived notion that hunting may “increase breeding” of resident coyotes.

As we’ve discussed fairly often here at Furbearer Conservation, almost every examination of coyote reproduction and hunting traces back 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 (USDA, APHIS, Wildlife Services, National Wildlife Research Center, Logan, UT, USA) also adds that the suggestion of responsive breeding is “over simplified and unproven.”

Let’s face it - coyote breeding coincides with the need for spring birthing. Like all wildlife they must conceive young when conditions are optimal. This denies the concept of "compensatory” or “responsive” reproduction as put forth by those opposed to coyote hunting. Coyotes do not "breed more when hunted." The basis for the theory of “larger litters” is readily explained.

The more coyotes on a given landscape mean resources (food, territory) are less readily available to each individual. An animal competing harder for the same resource cannot be expected to have the same rate of fecundity as a healthier animal, which is obviously under less stress from competition. Too many coyotes, in turn, lead to more unhealthy coyotes, which can't carry or provide for their pups as efficiently. This was noted in a 2005 paper written by Dr. Eric Gese, and published by the University of Nebraska (Demographic and Spatial Responses of Coyotes to Changes in Food and Exploitation).

Countless scientific studies have found that coyote litter size is usually related to food abundance. Studies have found that a lower density of coyotes in a given “removal area” and the increased prey availability to the surviving female coyotes, brought about an increase in their reproductive capabilities (Knowlton 1972, Henderson 1972, Connolly and Longhurst 1975). The mechanism by which this occurs is unknown, but may be a consequence of breeding females acquiring more food due to more prey and reduced competition.

Although plentiful, it doesn’t really take a research study to recognize that suburban environments are incredibly rich with resources for coyotes. These environments are also lower in predator pressure, since hunters rarely hunt and trap in suburban areas - meaning coyotes are free to adapt almost completely unencumbered. There seems to be a growing trend in national headlines of coyotes (of both the east and west variety) becoming increasingly bold and aggressive in urban areas - ironically, areas where hunting practices seldom take place. A recent study published in Scientific Reports seems to echo these observations.

From what I could dig up, many of the arguments behind “responsive reproduction” theories have directed field study and resources towards (a) complete eradication of coyotes from the landscape, and (b) focus heavily on sheep depredation on large-scale ranches. Neither of which exist in an urban setting, nor do very many “large scale” ranches exist in the more densely populated Northeast United States.

Roland Kays, an ecologist at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences tends to agree. Finding ways to make coyotes fear humans again is “tricky,” he told the New York Times during an article on urban canid conflict. “Out in the wild in rural areas if a coyote gets bold and hangs around people, it’s going to get shot,” he said. “And in urban areas that just doesn’t happen.”

(Photo | California Agriculture)

Guy Connolly further states “When coyotes are killing pets and threatening children in urban situations, in my opinion the last thing we should do is argue the technicalities of coyote population dynamics. Instead, we should remove the problem coyotes as quickly, efficiently, and humanely as possible. And stop people from feeding the coyotes.”

Even when taking livestock predation into account, the jury is still out on coyote population dynamics. Long time canid researcher Frederick Knowlton argues that it is necessary to kill some coyotes to protect livestock even if other coyotes could inevitably take their place. "I've been mowing my grass for 30 years, and it still grows back," he states. "That doesn't mean I'm not doing it right."

Cascade Effect

With these facts in mind, its not outlandish for one to ask “shouldn't we manage furbearer populations for healthier animals that exist within their carrying capacity, both natural and social, than allow them to proliferate to their own detriment?”

Bottom line, attempting to reduce hunting of a wild canid population that has arguably already exceeded its natural capacity is, in my humble opinion, inappropriate.

Diseases that plague wild canids in New Hampshire, such as Sarcoptic Mange and Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) are increasingly common and proven to be density dependent diseases. This would suggest even more evidence that we already have a surplus on the landscape, which is not being reduced enough as it is.

As I’ve recently reported, it’s been stated that CDV is present and possibly having a negative effect on multiple fur bearing species in New Hampshire; notably red and gray fox. It is common knowledge that eastern coyotes directly compete with red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) for territory. This presents another example, outside of “serving mankind”, as to whether we should or should not restrict take of the more abundant eastern coyote, which is known to kill and/or “drive” red foxes out of their home territories.

Wildlife Management should be a BiPartisan Issue

As much as some on both sides of the argument want to make this political quandary a partisan one, it shouldn’t be. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or Independent - wildlife management protocols should be focused on rationale and support for biodiversity as well as conserving wildlife. Period.

The legislative creators and supporters of HB442 may have had good intentions. On the surface, it seems like a good and noble cause for wildlife stewardship. However, the eastern coyote is not like other wildlife.

Facts aside, as Newton’s third law states, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Connecticut is just one Northeast state that discovered this “opposite reaction” after a similar coyote hunting argument. This is why we pay reputable state professionals to weigh all the considerations, data, facts, and arguments of both sides of a wildlife management debate.

Furbearer Conservation is “opposed” to HB442 - but not for the reasons some may think (or try to claim). This stance is directly in line with concerns over muddying wildlife management procedure with politics. While I have no formal “position” on “year round coyote hunting”, or engage in it, I firmly feel these specific discussions and the debate surrounding them should be hashed out within the walls of our Fish & Game agencies; where hard data from reputable sources can be discussed with “we the people” and management professionals. While sometimes needed, in many cases political grandstanding only seems to sanctify that wildlife management is void of rationale and instead “goes to the loudest voice”. We shouldn’t have to round up a “flock of sportsmen” to rally and demonstrate to lawmakers that deer and foxes are as equally important as coyotes.

Of course, I recognize that predatory mammals are a beneficial and necessary component of our natural world. I also recognize that these mammalian predators should be regulated and managed for the greater good of natural biodiversity on a human-inhabited continent – with the best available science, by the best available management professionals. The NH Fish & Game Commission opted to “table” discussion on a closed coyote season last year alluding to a desire for more biological information surrounding the eastern coyote in New England. We now seem to find ourselves faced with House Bill 442 instead.

As for the moral aspects of “hunting” individual coyotes during “pup rearing” months - do we regard the same concern for vehicle mortalities (road-kill), habitat loss, or disease impact? These are three subjects I assert take place far more commonly than “summertime hunting” activities. Where is the regard for “pup rearing” as these seemingly “uncontrollable” factors are taking place? And are they really as “uncontrollable” as we’ve trained ourselves to perceive?

State wildlife professionals have testified that they not only oppose HB442 today, but that much of the misconceptions supporting HB442 with regard to wild canid biology are flawed, and frankly, incorrect. If the motivating factors behind the drafting of HB442 were to base decisions of coyote management around “the science” – one should be able to deduce that “the science” suggests HB442 be rendered Inexpedient To Legislate.

The House Fish, Game & Marine Resources Committee agreed - voting 14-6 to “kill” the bill last week. The bill now awaits a final full member vote on the House floor. As of the posting of this column, no official date has been set for the full vote. Anyone wishing to express support or opposition for HB442 is encouraged to contact their NH House representatives.

(Photo | Caleb Woods)