Coyotes In Dixie – Bane Or Bounty?

October 29, 2015

When I left North Carolina in 1996, the thought of coyotes ranging through the coastal swamps and forests never crossed my mind.  Canis latrans aren’t native to the east coast, and with all the range and habitat out west, why would they even come this way?  That was fairly short-sighted of me, I know, but I honestly never gave coyotes a ton of thought.

What a difference a couple of decades makes!

In August, a couple of weeks after I bought this new place, Iggy and I were scouting deer sign.  He picked up some kind of trail and took off.  I paid no real attention, as he’s subject to doing that from time to time, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt anything.  A few minutes later, he came back and wandered out into the soybean field.  Not two minutes behind him, I caught a glimpse of grey fur coming through the pines, and a coyote materialized, hot on his trail.

It was my first live, eastern coyote, and I looked at him (or her, I dunno) with a mix of emotions.  But I’ll be honest.  My initial thought was, “I wish I had thought to bring the pistol.”

Back in CA, I was always hesitant to shoot coyotes, and I would only do so at the direct request of a landowner where I was hunting.  Part of it was their resemblance to dogs, and part of it is the fact that they’re more a natural part of that landscape than I am.  As a natural part of the ecosystem, they have a role to play.  And, of course, to sit and listen to them sing on a starlit night is to feel the very essence of the West.

But in NC, it’s not so simple.  As newcomers to the region they are, essentially, a non-native species.  The population appears to be booming, and it’s not entirely clear what sort of impact they’ll have on the local habitat.  Given the rapidly dwindling quail populations, and struggles to re-establish the wild turkey flocks, coyotes could mean bad news.  Hence, my first thought was to shoot the invader.

Here’s the thing, though.  It’s pretty well established that shooting the occasional coyote on sight has no real impact on populations.  Even focused predator hunting doesn’t seem to do a lot to manage their numbers.  My shooting that coyote wouldn’t make a bit of difference, except maybe to give me a conflicted sense of satisfaction and a scraggly, summer hide.

I know predator hunting is an ongoing topic of discussion, especially since the advent of social media has provided a platform for every critic and proponent.  It’s a conversation that hasn’t changed much over the years, except that it’s no longer just, “a western thing.”  On the one hand are the hunters, from California to the Carolinas, who claim that the coyotes have to be controlled or the game populations will be decimated.  “Shoot a ‘yote, save a fawn,” is the common mantra.

Diametrically opposed are the animal lovers who claim that the ‘yotes are good and necessary, and that they have the “right” to exist and expand wherever they will.  “They were here first,” is a common rallying cry.  “We’ve invaded their habitat.”

As usual, somewhere in the middle dwells Reason.

Unfortunately, Reason is not well provided with non-conflicting information.  It’s still unclear what impact coyotes have on wildlife populations.  Research is ongoing, of course, but coyotes live in a staggeringly wide range of habitats and they can survive on everything from fruit to fawns (as well as full-grown deer).  In some places, there’s more than enough prey to satisfy their hunger, while in others, it’s possible that coyote predation can suppress or even deplete the resource.  Add to this the complexity of identifying causality in a dynamic ecosystem, where everything is connected to everything else, and it’s an uphill fight to get a clear picture of the coyote’s impact in NC.

But wait, there’s even more, and this is where I think things get a little bit foggy.

Whitetail deer across many parts of the eastern seaboard, particularly the southeast, are overpopulated.  The problem is, they’ve been overpopulated for so long, that many hunters today take the high numbers for granted… even expected.  In a lot of areas, hunter success is consistently high.  I think a lot of these guys don’t really understand what it will mean if the whitetail herd is reduced to a healthy level (if that’s even possible), but in general, it will almost certainly mean a decrease in deer sightings, lower hunter success, and a reduced season/bag limit… and I can almost guarantee that most hunters will not like that.

At the same time, one of the most common arguments hunters make in support of hunting is the need to manage/reduce the deer populations.  While I’m sure this is said un-ironically, it sort of flies in the face of some of their actions.  For example, in states where deer sightings have dropped off, hunters are quick to blame wild predators such as coyotes, mountain lions, or even bears… and immediately call for increased hunting opportunities on these predators.  It doesn’t really seem to matter that the reduced deer herd is specifically the goal of management programs, nor does it matter whether the decline is in line with those management goals.

That creates a conflict in my mind which I find challenging to reconcile.

If coyotes are actually helping to reduce the whitetail population to healthier levels, then that’s a net win for the habitat and for other species that share it (including us).  This is what we want, or at least what many of us claim to want.  According to research down in South Carolina, this is also exactly what’s happening, at least in the study area.  Note, by the way, that the research suggested that the coyotes in combination with hunters, were making a difference.

There are still a lot of open questions here.  Whitetail deer are not the only prey animals in the ecosystem in question, and some of those other critters are not overpopulated at all.  Since, when it comes to whitetail predation, coyotes in the southeast are primarily feeding on fawns, that leaves several months of the year where they’ll be looking for other prey.  What will this mean for quail, cottontail rabbits, turkeys, and other ground-nesting birds?  How will coyotes impact other, small predators such as foxes and bobcats?

Time and research will tell, I suppose.  In the meantime, it’s pretty clear that the August encounter will not be my last.  I’m not sure how I’ll respond the next time, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be a tough call either way.









8 Responses to “Coyotes In Dixie – Bane Or Bounty?”

  1. Coyotes In Dixie – Bane Or Bounty? | on October 29th, 2015 15:17

    […] Coyotes In Dixie – Bane Or Bounty? […]

  2. hodgeman on October 29th, 2015 23:17

    When I left Tennessee, a coyote sighting was a rare occurrence. Now they’re pretty common there.

    Coyotes are also recent arrivals in Alaska and tend to concentrate on the road system,…they seem to congregate near people (possibly because we reduce their predators and prey competition from wolves and foxes.)

    they are hard on foxes and harder on grouse but we regulate them as a furbearer. I’ve taken a few in deep winter and the hides are fabulous… completely different than a scruffy L48 coyote.

  3. Josh on November 6th, 2015 11:56

    Another good, nuanced article.

    I think some classes for coyotes on how to preserve their catch could help reduce impacts on other species during the off-season… perhaps Hank can come down and teach how to salt-pack their fawns?

  4. Phillip on November 8th, 2015 18:53

    Thanks, Josh.

    And “nuanced” is exactly how I feel about the coyotes down here. Layers and layers… but maybe if they would pack and store their kills for later, that might resolve some of the issues. 😉

  5. Joshua Stark on November 9th, 2015 08:44

    Tangled webs and all that.

    Here in Sacramento, Agnes and I stumbled across a news report on angry residents bordering the American River Parkway, a wonderfully wild space right through the middle of the city.

    This place is a riverine corridor from the foothills almost to the Delta, and has been visited by (or housed) everything from mountain lions to sea lions.

    Anyhoo, these folks were angry because of the coyote population threatening their little dogs and cats.

    Now, I love dogs and cats, but if you’ve decided to let a dog off-leash or let your cat roam free, then you need to play by the rules of the wild. It’s really sad to lose a pet, but there is risk in life.

    As countryfolk, we were blown away by the indignant sense of ownership of this wild space. We were happy to hear the response by the park rangers, who declined to set about on some crusade for the shih-tzu’s and tabbys of the world.

  6. Phillip on November 11th, 2015 06:27

    Interesting stuff, Josh, and sort of sad. The total disconnection, and even rejection, of the realities of nature is a distressing thing to see (or hear). It irritates me to hear a sense of pride in the voices of some people when their sweet little kitties run loose in the neighborhood and kill some small creatures… and how that pride turns to indignation and anger when that same kitty turns into coyote or bobcat food (or when it is flattened in traffic).

    Of course, the flip side is when the wild predators become bold enough to hop fences and take the pets from the enclosure.

    No easy answers, but folks really need to recognize that nature isn’t a frickin’ garden for their pleasure and convenience.

  7. ian on November 13th, 2015 16:33

    Cool piece, Phillip. Got me poking around a bit, and I watched a pretty cool piece by Nature (PBS) –

    All about the ‘Coywolf’

  8. Phillip on November 15th, 2015 08:22

    Thanks, Ian.

    I’ve been sort of following the discussion about the coy-wolves. Interesting stuff, and maybe it’s the beginning of a whole new species.