Levin: The Coyote Debate

Feb 20, 2018

Coyotes woke me up the other night with a serenade of the wildest kind echoing off the hills, a sound that makes me yearn for the passage of House Bill 636, which would make Vermont the only state besides California to ban coyote-hunting competitions.

Europeans have had long history of disrespecting coyotes. Mark Twain called them “a long, slim, sick, sorry-looking skeleton … a living breathing allegory of Want.” And the federal government has tried for one hundred and fifty years to exterminate them from the West with guns, traps, dynamite, and assorted and insidious poisons. More than four hundred thousand are slaughtered annually under the misguided notion that they decimate game animals and livestock, but despite this ongoing effort - coyotes not only survive; they thrive.

It seems there’s an inscription in their genome that has enabled coyotes to withstand persecution; to mobilize, colonize, and customize to the far reaches of North America. At one time, coyotes had the same trouble with wolves that they now have with us … wholesale carnage. And in response, coyotes increased their litter size from three or four to more than ten; subordinate females breed; then, when either the predation ceases or their diet is limited, pack size shrinks or expands accordingly.

A thousand years of large-scale farming in Mesoamerica drew coyotes south from borderland deserts right up to the outskirts of Aztecs cities, and, more recently, to the periphery of South America. In the opposite direction, by 1930, coyotes crossed the Arctic Circle.

In 1804, Lewis and Clark found them largely confined to the West, but no longer. Today, coyotes are in every American city, from Los Angeles to Boston. In Chicago, their diet includes lakeshore goslings and suburban fawns. The only significant landmass in the lower forty-eight states that remains without them is Long Island. They breed in the Bronx; turn up in Central Park, and boast a citywide population in the high teens. Two years ago, a small pack was removed from La Guardia Airport.

I appreciate them both for their wondrous anthem and for their eclectic diet, which includes an abundance of mice and chipmunks, the reservoir hosts of Lyme disease. Bill H.636 passed the House wildlife committee 6-2 last week and is now in the House Ways and Means Committee. A full House debate is expected within the next few days.