Mangled, dead coyotes unceremoniously fill the back of a rural flatbed truck.
Four skinned coyotes lie in a circle, their bodies in the mud as their coats are shipped to Europe.
These are the jarring images Dianne Wittner, wildlife biologist and renowned coyote expert, uses to begin her slideshow presentation, Co-existing with Coyotes. The images highlight the abhorrent treatment these animals receive at the hands of humans.
Wittner was invited by Bow Valley Wildsmart to conclude their speaker series on April 18, addressing many concerns about coyotes in the valley.
“Coyotes are a remarkable species and worthy of our respect, but the more you learn what we do to them, the more painful it becomes,” Wittner said. “We shoot coyotes, we poison coyotes and we’ve developed cyanide bombs that blow up in their faces. We bury their puppies alive... to learn what we’ve done to them is a horrific tale.”
Yet, while coyotes, with brains 12 per cent bigger than their dog counterparts are hunted, poisoned and subject to bounties, their population continues to explode across North America.
This is caused by several factors, Wittner said, such as the absence of main predators like wolves. In Yellowstone National Park, the coyote population dropped by 60 per cent after the reintroduction of wolves. Further south, deforestation and subsequent increase of agricultural lands has created prime coyote habitat, allowing them to range down into the former jungles of South America.
“Their numbers have gone up and their range has expanded,” Wittner said. “As jungles are destroyed for crops, coyotes are having a field day.”
Yet while humans try to remove coyotes from urban and rural environments, often with cruel methods, their numbers continue to expand. The average life expectancy of a coyote in the wild is similar to that of a dog – about seven years. Coyotes which live near humans however, only have a life expectancy of 10 months. As a result, most coyotes that live near humans are juveniles.
Where humans have tried to control coyote populations through culls, their population has only increased. Wittner explained this has a great deal to do with their breeding cycles.
Contrary to popular belief, most coyotes are pack animals with a very strict social structure. Only the alpha male and females breed, producing four or five pups a year. Only the alpha female ovulates. However, if one of the alphas dies, all of the females in the pack ovulate, which can result in 12 or more pups.
“This is one of the most important keys to their biology and why we can’t control them,” Wittner said. “Right off the bat, if you take out an alpha, you’ll have three times as many pups.”
Many farmers are told to target coyotes during breeding season, which is the wrong thing to do. In the United States, the federal government spends $20 million a year trying to control coyotes, with poor results.
“Misinformation leads to increases in numbers,” Wittner said.
Several cities have adopted no-kill policies when it comes to coyotes. Places such as Calgary, Chicago and San Francisco no longer kill coyotes, except in extreme circumstances. By comparison, Edmonton bylaw kills upwards of 50 coyotes a year.
Coyotes are a common sight around Canmore, as they feast upon an abundant food source in the form of rabbits and other rodents. This results in frequent sightings and reports of coyotes following dogs. Wittner said coyotes make their presence known if another canine enters their territory, which is common behaviour, but they are rarely a threat.
“They tolerate other animals within their home range and will defend it passively through vocalizations and scent markings. If that doesn’t work, it may escalate and the coyotes may become expressive in trying to intimidate the interloper to leave,” Wittner said.
Coyotes try to avoid fighting, as it is dangerous and a huge caloric expenditure. They will surround an intruding dog and nip and pick at it, hoping it will leave.
Wittner said it’s common for those with dogs to be followed by coyotes.
“But if you went 20 minutes later without a dog, chances are you wouldn’t see a coyote at all,” Wittner said.
Human/coyote conflicts usually involve animals that have been fed by people, as there is only one case of a coyote killing a human in recorded history. While two years ago coyotes reportedly killed a woman in Nova Scotia, Wittner said new information may show that not to be the case. She has received word from a veterinarian in Nova Scotia that the animals that killed the young woman had less than 20 per cent coyote DNA.
Living in close proximity to humans, coyotes change their behaviour drastically. Usually a diurnal species, urban coyotes only hunt at night.
“If they hunt at night, they’ve learned to avoid their number one predator – humans,” Wittner said. “Where they live away from people, they are a diurnal species.”
Studies have shown in areas humans have left (such as old mining sites), coyotes have reverted back to their diurnal habits and their population numbers decrease.
The coyote proponent also preached the benefits of living with the animals on the landscape, noting they increase biodiversity and save farmers and urban areas thousands of dollars in rodent control.
“The average coyote eats 5,000 mice a year. That means a pack of five will eat 25,000 mice. Imagine how much food saving that is for livestock.”
Wittner also says coyotes are considered a ‘top down’ species, as their health reflects all other animals beneath them in the food chain.
“Only a few species in the world exhibit the top down effect, where the success affects the health of every species below them: great white sharks, killer whales, tigers and a couple species of wolves. Now coyotes have joined them. Are they ecologically important? You bet your butt they are,” Wittner said.
Those who are uncomfortable living in such close proximity to coyotes can easily move unwanted dens.
“If denning is too close to a home, it’s easy to get them to move… you can just walk up to the den site and walk away. If you want extra insurance…. Pee around the entrance and make it look like a predator was trying to get at their puppies. They will move overnight,” Wittner said.
The best way to control the coyote population is to ensure a healthy wolf population, Wittner said, however she’s not optimistic that will occur.
Despite their benefits, Wittner said the media plays a big role in demonizing the animals, stating reports of attacks tend to be sensationalized. That’s unfair, she said.
Dogs bite about 350 people each year in Calgary. Between one and three people are killed by dogs every year in Canada. However, the media focus often calls for the eradication of coyotes when they bite children – even though they are often exonerated during deeper investigations.
“We can’t annihilate them. We need to give them the respect they’re due,” Wittner said.
For more information on coyotes, visit www.projectcoyote.org