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Nature and Environment

News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.


Coyote: A Keystone Carnivore

“Your land is an ecosystem.” I will very probably write that statement on every one of my blog entries, because it is vitally important to understand its true meaning.

Every member of an ecosystem community needs to be present in order to keep your land healthy and vibrant. That includes the carnivores - both terrestrial and avian. But one carnivore affects that ecosystem community more than the others: the keystone carnivore. And coyotes play the role of the keystone carnivore in many of the landscapes of North America.

 

Coyote by Forest Hart

So what is a keystone carnivore anyway? As I stated above, a number of carnivores share landscapes across our continent with each other, each filling important niches in their own right. However, the keystone carnivore has the greatest positive impact on the community of life within a landscape. Whenever that carnivore kills another species in order to survive — most often their prey are herbivores — they keep the numbers of that species’ population in check, and by doing so help that species to maintain robust health, genetic vitality and protection from widespread disease.

By controlling these same herbivore populations — like rabbits, rodents, deer and elk to name a few —the keystone carnivore protects the habitat of important species like birds, butterflies, bees, salamanders, frogs and fish (to name a few) from being eaten and destroyed by the hungry mouths of herbivores. As a result, the landscape that is so balanced by these interactions is biodiverse, a term that expresses the presence of many different species. When the landscape is enlivened by many kinds of species, they all participate in their own way to create a healthy, balanced landscape on your land.

Here is just one example of many, that demonstrates how each member of the community is invaluable to the health of your land and the success of your farm/ranch: insect eating birds, whose vital habitat has been protected from the hungry herbivores, will then play an important role of controlling insects that are capable of destroying the hard work of vegetable farmers and cause disease in your livestock. This is just one example of the complex workings of a biodiverse ecosystem.

Historically, those who came before us had no knowledge of the complexity of how ecosystems work, and that they themselves were also members of it. So as I mentioned in a previous post, carnivores were wantonly killed across the continent, with dire results rapidly observed across the land. The use of large-scale pesticides took off, and the power of controlling chemical companies further destroyed a land rich and vital. And this has been a legacy that we have received from those who came before us.

But we have so much more knowledge now, and that knowledge is the power we have to return to ecological diversity. Today, coyotes play the role of a keystone carnivore on many places of our American continent. Where wolves and cougars are present they can play that role as well. But in our human-dominated world, coyotes are capable of living among us, while there are many places where wolves or cougars cannot tolerate human presence.

When coyotes are present on your land, they are offering you the free services of the keystone carnivore, if you are willing to accept them. And they will continue to do so in ways that will astound you if you would first stop and take note of the results of their services and if you understand what they ask of you.

 

Coyote by John Tangney 

In my next blog post, I will share with you what coyotes and other carnivores ask of you. Until next time, I would encourage you to read The Voice of the Coyote, 2nd edition, by Frank Dobie. It is the ultimate classic!

Geri Vistein is a conservation biologist whose work focuses on carnivores and our human relationships with them. In addition to research and collaboration with fellow biologists in Maine, she educates communities about carnivores and how we can coexist with them. You can find her at Coyote Lives in Maine, and read all of Geri's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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