Coyotes, like the Western coyote shown above, are resourceful predators and will take advantage of small unprotected livestock. All photos by Stephanie Butzer.
By Stephanie Butzer
As he drove 50 mph across his pasture, it became more and more clear to Mike Corn that the coyote he was chasing was going to make it back to the safety of the trees.
But Corn wasn’t going to give up easily. The business he runs out of his ranch in New Mexico, Roswell Wool, is one of the largest wool warehouses in the country and the loss of 100 lambs in a month had hurt the company. Each dead lamb cost him $200, bringing the total loss that month to $20,000.
The felon was a lone coyote beyond its prime. It had probably slowed to the point at which it was no longer able to hunt its typical prey, like rabbits and other small mammals. Corn, the owner and manager of the ranch, was frustrated with the loss. The predator jumped fences and had already avoided traps, snares and aerial shooting.
Before he lost any more lambs, Corn recruited his neighbors to help him catch the coyote. On this afternoon was the chase. In a single moving line, the group drove 10 four-wheelers across his pasture. They scanned the grasses, jouncing in their seats and looking for signs of movement.
Halfway across the pasture, Corn spotted the predator and raced toward it. But the wiley coyote ran for a fence. Corn knew there was no way of cutting it down if it got past it, so he slid to a stop and pulled out his rifle.
“I pull the trigger at nearly the same time and guess what? I hit that coyote in a full run and he rolled several times,” Corn said.
His friends congratulated him for his next-to-impossible shot, but Corn knew the problem was not solved. He had killed just one coyote in an immeasurable population. There would be another on the property the next day.
As the U.S. population pushes toward 314 million, people have expanded to regions of the country where interactions with wild animals are a daily occurrence. When coyotes and wolves start becoming a part of people’s daily lives, the response is often fear and anger.
Thousands of Americans must ranch and farm not only for their own livelihood, but to provide food and clothing for millions of others. The success of ranches like Roswell Wool is generally seen to be of higher value than the maintenance of predators in U.S. ecosystems. The controversy over all of this raises fiery emotions and countless questions.
Animal advocates, especially those who do not live with these predators, think the wild canines deserve to play a role and thrive and survive. Sometimes, they see things in a different light from ranchers. Wolves and coyotes are beautiful creatures. Their predatory nature is natural to them. Hunting them is wrong. Endangered species should be rescued, no matter the cost.
Steve Clark, president of the Arizona Elk Society, said such people do not understand the situation fully. “They’re not hunters or hunting for sustainable meat for their family,” he explained. “They’re sitting in their posh New England home in Maine or somewhere saying, ‘I love wolves. I want to see more wolves.’ Do they even know the affect that it’s having on the population of the wildlife? Do they care?”
Biologists agree predators are necessary for a healthy ecosystem. Without them, populations of herbivores and mid-level predators, such as foxes and raccoons, grow out of control. This can lead to undesirable consequences such as over-grazing on agricultural crops and national forests or mid-level predators raids on sea turtle nests.
The task, methods and purpose of predator control for coyotes and two of the world’s rarest wolves have grown into a passionate argument for the rights of survival.
Winding lane for Mexican gray wolves
Catron County in New Mexico includes 7,000 mountainous square miles – perfect for wildlife. For 15 years, the people of this county have struggled to coexist with an endangered predatory animal.
“I’ve looked in the eyes of Catron County ranchers,” said Jess Carey, wildlife investigator in the county. “I’ve seen them fall by the wayside. Some of these family ranchers have worked all their lives to be able to have a ranch and then they lose it because the wolves devastate their livestock.”
Mexican gray wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, went extinct in the United States by the mid-1990s, but 20 years later, a captive breeding program captured five wolves from Mexico and placed them in Arizona. By 1998, 11 wolves were rereleased and today, 75 wolves remain in the wild. One of the release locations is in Catron County.
Carey said Mexican gray wolves are habituated and don’t act like wild wolves. The county has records of wolves defecating on porches and approaching people at close range.
Carey said the bully in the situation isn’t just the predator. It’s also the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which picked the county as a suitable reintroduction location. But Carey said the county doesn’t have the voting power or money to fight the department and that is why the area was chosen for the reintroduction.
“Even to this day, we still have children who wake up screaming and crying in the night thinking the wolves are going to get them because of what they’ve seen the wolves do on their front porch – killing their pets, killing their farm animals,” he said. “It’s almost like the only people that care are the ones who have to live with them.”
The county has resorted to building kid cages – small wooden shelters with wired windows – at school bus stops to keep their children safe should a wolf approach. Carey said environmentalists think the kid cages are a scam to make people more frightened of the Mexican wolf, but they have been put in place to give children a peace of mind.
“To prevent a wolf-child interaction – that’s all they’re for,” Carey said. “Nothing more, nothing less. They’re there if they want to use them. Anything that sheds bad light on the wolf recovery – the pro-wolf organizations want to belittle that and make all kinds of accusations on things they know nothing about.”
Lynne Nemeth is on the steering committee for the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Program in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Lynne Nemeth, a member of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Program, said the federal government used to pay generations of ranchers to kill wolves. When wolves were admitted on the Endangered Species list, the rules had to change.
“The federal government turns around 20 years later and says, ‘Oops. We made a mistake. We shouldn’t have exterminated them. We’re going to bring them back on the landscape,’” Nemeth said. “The mistrust of the federal government is very, very high, particularly in Catron County.”
Nemeth said the kid cages are “absurd” since there aren’t any documented cases of a healthy wolf attacking a human being in the United States.
Like Carey, Sylvia Allen, the Navajo County Supervisor, is frustrated with people calling kid cages a publicity stunt since the shelters have been in place for 15 years.
“If you’re a mother, do you want to take a chance that this wolf hanging around, which will attack your dog, your cat, your chickens, is not worth worrying about?” Allen asked. “You can’t even trust sometimes the neighbor’s dog to come in your yard and not bite your child. Yet, you’re telling these people, ‘You’re silly for being afraid of these wolves.’”
Over the past decade, many Mexican wolf packs were released in the Gila Wilderness, part of which is in Catron County. But, data showed they left that area and went to where people live. In one instance, a female and male were released in the forest and the female went to a ranch, where she was legally shot by a landowner after attacking a cow. The male migrated to a home, attacked a calf, was trapped and rereleased, and started approaching people in Catron County. After nine incidents in two days, U.S. Fish and Wildlife sent its Interagency Field Team to dart and remove the male wolf.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program has plans to expand beyond the current recovery area, and Carey said the people who will be affected by those plans can’t imagine the nightmare coming to their community.
Allen has kept a careful eye on the recovery program. Navajo County is one of the counties where the wolves would be reintroduced should the program expand. Allen is hoping the challenges in Catron County do not spill over to her community.
She sympathizes with the ranchers who are not compensated for predator attacks on livestock, also known as depredations, but she also feels sympathy for the wolves.
“They can’t be a wild animal out there doing its thing,” she said. “They’re constantly monitored and manipulated. It’s not even normal for the wolves.”
The Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Program is aiming to reintroduce wolves in the Grand Canyon, away from populated areas. Nemeth, who is on the steering committee for this effort, said if the program succeeds, there will be a healthy population of Mexican gray wolves back in the Grand Canyon, where they went extinct in the early 1900s.
“There’re no wolves any more on the north rim,” Nemeth said. “There’re no wolves on the south rim. There’re no wolves around Flagstaff. There could be. There should be.”
Wolves are one of the only predators capable of bringing down an adult elk. Without a predator, elk populations starve and cause massive damage to forests.
She said Flagstaff and the surrounding area could support a wolf population because of the abundance of elk, a favorite meal for wolves. When all the gray wolves were killed in Yellowstone National Park in the 1920s, the elk population exploded and the ecology of the park teetered on total destruction. While some elk were shot, others were transported and released in the southwest to ensure young trees could grow and recreate the forest. Nemeth said this happened before Americans understood biological relationships and the importance of predators to the ecosystem.
A new recovery plan, which will ensure the Mexican gray wolf does not get delisted with the gray wolves, is in the works after much influence from the Wolf Recovery Program.
But Nemeth does not believe a full recovery is possible.
Political and public support is too low to allow a healthy population to exist. Although she said she thinks they will make some sort of comeback, the wolves will have to be a heavily managed population.
“One needs to make a level of adjustment in one’s thinking to allow predators,” Nemeth said.
Crying wolf or crying coyote
Coyote hunting along the coast of North Carolina is a delicate matter, and hunters are starting to examine their targets a little harder before pulling the trigger.
Five coastal North Carolina counties – Beaufort, Hyde, Dare, Tyrrell and Washington – make up the 1.7 million acres of the Red Wolf Recovery Area, the only place on Earth where red wolves still live. The animals – fewer than 100 remaining – share the land with hundreds of other mammals, including coyotes, which to an untrained eye look similar to red wolves.
Last July, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission approved a rule allowing coyotes to be hunted at night with artificial lighting in hopes of expanding recreational coyote hunting. The red wolves have already felt the impact of the new rule.
“We have seen, this year, an increase in illegal red wolf killings by gunshot,” said Kim Wheeler, the executive director at the Red Wolf Coalition. “That’s the No. 1 reason for red wolf mortality. The night hunting thing just made that worse.”
In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported 14 red wolf deaths, nine of which were confirmed or suspected gunshot mortalities. That’s almost a 15-percent cut in the population in one year.
But the deaths didn’t stop in 2013.
The New Year rang in with gunshots. A collared wolf was found shot to death in Tyrrell County Jan. 7, 2014.
The Red Wolf Coalition decided it was time to take legal action. In February, the Coalition and other conservation groups will argue in court that coyote night hunting is responsible for these deaths.
The story of the red wolf’s reintroduction is very different from that of the Mexican gray wolf because the coast of North Carolina is not a suitable region for livestock. But both species started with extinction. The red wolf was first reintroduced after extinction in the wild in 1987 at North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
Click for interactive image and more information on these species.
North Carolina’s Fish and Wildlife Service discussed the wolf’s reestablishment with the public in advance. These meetings helped persuade the public to work in a collaborative environment with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said Rebecca Bartel, assistant coordinator of the organization’s Red Wolf Recovery Program.
The U.S. Endangered Species Act – passed in 1973 to reverse a species’ route to extinction – gives some relaxation in the protections of the red wolf. The wolf is considered a nonessential experimental population, meaning they’re treated more as a threatened species than an endangered species. This was necessary as a compromise with some concerns for public safety and property issues, Bartel said. They have not received any significant complaints from landowners about the wolves.
Another relaxation of the law protected accidental shootings. If a hunter unintentionally shoots a red wolf and reports it within 24 hours, it is not considered a violation of federal regulation. But people aren’t reporting the deaths, which leads to suspicions of foul play, Bartel said.
The gunshots aren’t the only danger to the red wolves. Wolf-coyote hybrids are impacting the wolves’ ability to produce a pure population. Rising sea levels are also threatening the red wolves since their habitats undergo severe flooding during storm surges.
“If we don’t understand everything that comes with being a wolf then I think we do such a disservice to that animal,” Wheeler said. “There’s been a lot of research. We know a lot of things. We need to pay attention to it and not let our own prejudices and bias get in the way when we’re reading all that data and scientific information and stories.”
Getting hit trying to help
Unlike the red wolves, coyotes have learned to not only live, but thrive around humans. While this is unsettling for some people, others are content to coexist.
Joe Allen is a nationally-ranked expert in wildlife control. He receives about 20 calls a week asking for the removal of a coyote or bobcat.
Joe Allen, president of Allen Animal Exterminating in Arizona, gets calls almost every day requesting coyote removal. He also uses his skills to help the Arizona Deer Association recover the decreasing population of mule deer, a main prey item for coyotes, by shooting the predator before the fawns drop. This gives the baby deer a chance to survive.
But this doesn’t come without backlash.
“I get called a murderer and a killer all the time because I’m for predator management,” he said. “Somehow it’s OK for a coyote to tear a fawn away from the mother and eat it while it’s still alive. That’s fine in their eyes. But a well-placed bullet or arrow to take that animal out so you can have more animals – now, I’m the bad guy.”
After 30 years in the wildlife business, Randy Babb of Arizona Game and Fish still finds it impossible to satisfy both parties.
“People like wildlife,” he said. “Most people love wildlife. But they want wildlife on their own terms.”
In Arizona, coyotes are abundant and the state’s Game and Fish department receives several calls every day reporting sightings. Even though people see them often – public complaints make up about 80 percent of the calls to Game and Fish – it would be difficult for the department to do anything about a sighting.
“Other complaints we’ll get are pet attacks or an animal acting aggressively,” Babb said. “Those are handled differently. If the animal is a big enough problem where we can identify it as a specific animal, we’ll often take or make offers to remove it. We’re most concerned with animals that are presenting a threat to human safety.”
Babb said even though some people consider them pests, coyotes are part of the ecological system.
“We would never want them gone,” Babb said. “On the other hand, we’re very empathetic with the idea that you should be able to walk your dog and not worry about it getting eaten. This is the difficulty in managing wildlife. You’ve got conflicting demands.”
During town meetings, Babb and the rest of the Game and Fish staff hear both sides of the story and strive for each party to view it as a responsive department. It seems as if the six million people in the Phoenix metropolitan area have six million opinions on predators, Babb said.
“People need to understand we’re doing the best we can,” he said. “We’re trying to be realistic about it. As a biologist, oftentimes what I know that what needs to be done isn’t what my heart wants to be done.”
A controversial frontrunner
More than 5,000 wolves and an incalculable number of coyotes populate the lower 48 states.
Humans are not on the dinner menu for either of these animals. In United States history, just 30 coyote attacks and one wolf attack have been confirmed on a human. These statistics are low compared with those for domestic dog attacks, which resulted in 38 human deaths in 2012. Still, predator control helps ease the coexistence between wild canine and people. With livestock brought into the mix, the equation becomes more challenging.
Click for interactive map of where wolves are today, where they could be in the future and the reintroduction areas of the Mexican gray wolf and red wolf.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services is responsible for predator-control operations. Landowners can call the service for assistance, ranging from a wolf attacking cattle to a raccoon in an urban home’s attic. The organization also attempts to resolve wildlife-human conflicts.
But sometimes, a mission is easier said than done.
People started inquiring about the necessity of the department after multiple reports of animal cruelty, accidental killings of endangered animals and domestic pets, and the death of more than 3 million animals via indiscriminate methods. When $12 million of taxpayers’ money in a special account could not be accounted for, two congressmen decided to act.
Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and John Campbell, R-Calif., requested the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate Wildlife Services, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times.
The goal is to reexamine Wildlife Services’ mission and how it spends its money.
“It’s not a very transparent organization,” said Keli Hendricks, owner of Rockin’ H Ranch in California. “I think the type of people that go to work in the field – a person who wants to pursue a job trapping and killing animals – is not a person who’s probably very concerned with conservation or nonlethal methods.”
As a federal agency, Wildlife Services must go through regular audits and reviews. Some have been internally requested, said Carol Bannerman, U.S.D.A.’s Wildlife Services pubic affairs specialist.
“We have used external as well as internal reviews to make improvements in the program over the years,” she said. “These are opportunities for an outside group to look at us and see what we’re doing and how we can improve.
Wildlife Services has posted 16 years of records showing how they handle individual wildlife damage cases. They chase off 84 percent of all problem animals. Other times, they lethally remove or trap and relocate them.
Wildlife Services also tries to be more conspicuous with the National Wildlife Services Advisory Committee, a group of livestock producers, crop growers, animal welfare groups and private animal nuisance control operators that helps advise Wildlife Services on their actions.
One method Wildlife Services uses in some states is aerial shooting, which can cost up to $865 an hour and usually results in a single dead wolf or a couple of dead coyotes. Costs for other methods – from mass killings to individual kills – range from $100 to $2,000 depending on the individual circumstances.
While controlling wolf numbers has a strong impact on the species’ population, a mass killing of coyotes has a very different effect.
Click to listen to coyotes howling.
“One of the really interesting things about coyotes shows that when you actually start removing animals they actually step up their reproduction to account for that attrition,” Babb said. “That’s a really remarkable behavior. It’s pretty amazing to be able to do that.”
DeFazio and Campbell are investigating if the public needs to be taxed when private businesses could do Wildlife Services’ work for less money.
Lowell Cerise, owner of Cerise Ranch in Salmon, Idaho, said it would be better to have predator control regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or state agencies instead of Wildlife Services.
“I think Wildlife Services should be privatized,” he said. “There are times when it’s very necessary – when you’re one of those families that’s having problems. I just don’t know if we need this big government agency doing it.”
Bannerman said the role of Wildlife Services has changed over the past hundred years, like all other wildlife management professions. Instead of dealing with predator control, Wildlife Services mainly works to control depredations now, but people hang onto their former responsibilities.
“Sometimes the criticism and the image of Wildlife Services is more based on history than the current situation,” she said.
Mixed bag of methods
Since 2000, about 50,000 non-targeted animals have been killed with undiscriminating methods. This human impact is partially why management is almost essential to reduce human-predator interactions, even though prey and predators naturally regulate themselves in the wild.
People have found solutions not only to keep their livestock and livelihood secure, but to ensure a healthy population of predators in the wild. Depending on geographic region, culture and personal experience, some landowners will protect their property at any cost while others are content to live with the wild at their front door.
Some people find guard dogs to be the most effective tool for protecting livestock from attacks. At Roswell Wool, Corn has more than 20 guard dogs. He said that many neighboring ranches died off from depredations and the dogs make up for the help he lost when his neighbors moved away.
But, predator control isn’t restricted to the Western states. Farms in New England are reporting struggles with similar issues.
Click for story about one exterminator’s experience with a rare-colored coyote.
Click for a story about a 21-year man who was stalked by coyotes.
Millerton sits near the border of New York in rural northern Pennsylvania. The town is home to just more than 300 people. Kathleen England of Glenfiddich Wool, said she, like many other residents, enjoys seeing wildlife, but after the farm lost 30 sheep to coyotes one spring, she decided to implement an unusual method: donkeys.
England bought Eeyore and Donkey Oaty for about $250 apiece. Donkeys live to be 25 to 30 years old, they stay with the herd through all weather conditions and they eat hay, like the sheep. In the past 20 years, England said they have lost only a few animals.
“I know that if my donkeys see a dog or coyote in the pasture and they don’t recognize it, they’re chasing it out of the field,” England said. “If they can corner them, they’ll kill them.”
Click for a story about a woman who had to hide in a golf course bathroom to avoid a group of coyotes.
Click for a story about one man’s horse who thoroughly enjoys chasing coyotes from the pasture.
She doesn’t have any resentment toward the coyotes. She said if humans try to work against wildlife, they will not get anywhere, adding that coyotes need a place to survive.
“That’s why we live where we live,” England said. “I just don’t want them eating my sheep. We actually have put a 30-foot wildlife buffer around our farm and when my husband does hay, he has this one coyote that will run behind the baler to get the voles [mouse-like rodents]. The coyote is so happy just getting these voles, throwing them up in the air and eating them.”
Predator control doesn’t always require guard animals. Sometimes, traps and snares do the trick.
Outdoorsman and recreational trapper Ryan Yoakum, one of the owners of All Exterminating in Cumming, Ga., has been in the exterminating industry for 15 years. He knows the chances of a person or dog stepping in traps in a rural environment is low. But in cities – coyotes are prevalent in nearly every city – he needs a whole new plan to avoid unnecessary injury.
While more controversial than any other technique, lethal methods are a quick solution for a constant depredation problem.
Texas allows lethal methods and actually offers a $100 bounty for coyotes. Using a lure, hunters can attract a coyote to an M-44 device. This spring-operated system attracts predators to pull on the baited top portion, which ejects sodium cyanide in its mouth and instantly kills the animal. This method also has a history of killing domestic pets and countless other non-targeted animals.
“It’s not really my flavor, but if you’re doing it strictly for elimination of them so that game animals can thrive, I can understand how that would be a benefit,” Yoakum said.
When livestock or domestic pets are attacked, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses forensics to determine what type of animal cause the death. The distance between the teeth punctures is measured, and from there, experts can accurately determine the animal and develop a form of predator control best suited for that particular situation.
Strict supervision of predatory animals has been one of the popular methods, whether it’s through the use of guard dogs or various traps. But some people argue against interrupting nature.
“I definitely don’t think hunting them or killing coyotes is an option,” said Valerie Maguire, a Cave Creek, Ariz. resident. “I think if you have one that has lost its fear of people, we’ve got a real problem.”
When Maguire and her husband moved to Arizona, they decided they were going to consider themselves visitors and not interfere with the animals, especially predators, Maguire said. She goes for walks with her small dogs in the late mornings and brings bear spray just in case. She has a game plan should a coyote become too curious.
“If we see one, we make noises, we throw rocks,” she said. “Anything you can to scare them.
Maguire works to ensure that her home does not become attractive to coyotes. She never feeds them or leaves her dogs or trash outside for long periods of time. Most people in Arizona know about the serious coyote threat to outdoor cats and small dogs.
But the methods residents use to keep predators out don’t always work.
Melissa Gable, now the public information officer at Maricopa Animal Care and Control in Phoenix, used to work at the Arizona Humane Society. Her friend from the society had a house that backed up to an Indian reservation.
“It’s open desert – prime area for coyotes,” Gable said. “My friend actually had a neighbor who had a cocker spaniel, certainly not a dog you’d think a coyote would see as prey. A coyote jumped the fence and came into the yard, took the cocker spaniel, carried it back over the fence and took it off into the desert.”
Although many pets are killed each year by coyotes, Gable does not think a large-scale predator control program for the coyotes is needed. “It seems like the feeling here is it’s an issue, but we understand why it’s an issue, so why should we blame the coyote for that?” she said. “We’re the ones that made this an issue by building on their land.”
Moving forward with education
At some point, most Americans have discovered ants in their homes. The most common answer to this problem is to get rid of them with household chemicals or to call an exterminator.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if I come to your house and tell you, ‘No, you can’t kill those ants. As a matter of fact, you have to give them a portion of your instant mashed potatoes and your bread and keep them over there and feed them. We’re going to make it undesirable and illegal for you to manage them. Just share your stuff with the ants,’” said Ray Evridge of Phoenix Varmint Callers.
While ants and wild canines are controlled differently, the same problem exists – what if coexistence is uncomfortable?
Education is a strong tool and people directly involved with predator control are starting to use it to its full capacity. It not only helps change people’s perceptions, but it also helps increase safety for humans and domestic animals.
“Arizona Game and Fish has a whole host of different things and mechanisms that we use to get the information out to people,” Babb said. “These coyote issues are a part of the public education approach that we’ve taken, even to the point of having town hall meetings where we’ll go out to an area where there happens to be problems and we’ll hold a meeting, hear their concerns and tell them ways they can best prevent these types of incidents from happening.”
Babb said since Game and Fish won’t eradicate all coyotes from urban areas, education is the most reasonable approach.
“What we need to do is get a community base-type action plan that discourages the animals from hanging around,” Babb said. “A good part of this is hazing. We want people to throw objects at coyotes, yell at them, stomp their feet, clap their hands – do anything that would scare those animals and make those animals shy of human beings, which would eliminate a lot of the problems.”
Nemeth said the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Program talks to students and the public to dispel rumors about the wolves and emphasize the wolves’ importance in the ecosystem.
“We try to have a presence at public meetings, have people write comments, make phone calls, write letters and emails,” Nemeth said.
Education is also a critical aspect of the Red Wolf Recovery Program in North Carolina, where it is more directed toward safeguarding red wolves. Bartel said the program is showing recreationalists and hunters who live around the wolves how to identify a coyote from a red wolf to reduce accidental killings.
Although many people find it hard to believe, hunting is a form of conservation when done properly. Click to enlarge.
Equipped with education, people have started molding a coexistence between humans and species of endangered wolves and coyotes. These predators play an irreplaceable part in the ecosystem, but for the public to be safe, it is necessary to guide and restrict their interactions with people.
“It’s a small planet and there’re a lot of other things that share it with us,” Babb said. “It’s really important to leave room for all those things and try to do the right things as best you can.”
* This in-depth was completed as an independent study. Please click here for my comments, motivation and other information concerning this article.