Ruminations on Wildlife Conservation

Coyotes versus ranchers.

| July/August 1984

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    "As he populates more and more of the earth, man will have to eliminate all forms of wildlife that would compete with him for space and for food . . . he will tolerate wild animals, wild plants, and wild landscapes only to the extent that they serve his needs." Rene Dubos

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For many Americans, especially those of us from the West, the coyote is a symbol of the freedom and independence of all things wild. And for those fortunate enough to have heard it, the lonely, ethereal sound of the little canid's song sparks either a primal fear of the wild and unknown or the nostalgic, almost instinctive comfort of knowing that we're hearing a music that entertained and enthralled Homo long before he was sapiens.   

And for most of us, that's about as far as our knowledge of, experience with, or concern for the coyote extends. But for some—a relative handful of western ranchers, most of them sheepmen—the "prairie wolf" has become the center of special attention these last few years. These modern-day sheep- and cowboys charge the coyote with the crime of killing newborn calves and lambs. Especially lambs. In fact, so much stock is lost to predators, some sheepmen claim, that the coyote is literally eating them out of business.

Meanwhile, a growing number of wildlife conservation groups and concerned individuals counter that the situation isn't nearly as bad or as simplistic as the wool growers would have us believe. They say that the ranchers aren't playing fair and never have, that they are exaggerating their predation losses, that the coyote is being used as a scapegoat to cover up the ranchers' managerial shortcomings, and that some of the substances and methods used in the war against predators are inhumane and dangerous—and shouldn't be allowed on our public lands (where the ranchers in question graze their stock). Furthermore, say the conservationists, the real question isn't whether the ranchers can survive the predations of the coyote, but whether our western public domain can survive many more years of abuse by the stockmen and bureaucrats who hold its fate in their hands.

The western rancher's war on predators extends back to the frontier days when he was slugging it out with buffalo, wolves, Indians, and squatters for control of the vast rangelands. But the rancher long ago extirpated those other competitors ... leaving only the durable coyote to challenge his sovereignty.

Today, even as you read this, the wool growers and conservationists have taken their differences to the federal courts. Meanwhile, Mr. Coyote concentrates his efforts on the actual battlefront, where he daily dodges bullets, traps, and poisoned baits in his determination to see to the tasks that nature designed and intended him for: killing, eating, and reproducing.

And so far, the amazingly resilient and adaptable canid seems to be holding his own. Even prospering. In fact, a recent survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) revealed resident coyote populations in all of the 48 contiguous states except Rhode Island! Even so, Canis latrans (the "barking dog") is primarily a western fixture, thriving on and in the prairies, deserts, and mountains of that semiarid country. But—as the FWS survey confirms—he'll set up housekeeping virtually anywhere when necessity and survival demand (sometimes being pushed to the very shoreline of civilization, where he's obliged to subsist on an "international" diet of American alley cats, Norway rats, and errant French poodles).

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