Cries in the Night: Eastern Coyotes’ Impact on Local Habitats

By Alan Emond Gazette Contributing Writer

The air is cool—no, it’s frigid—the moon is near full and the souls of trees are imprinted in darkened outlines breaking the purity of glistening snow cover. Clouds roll by and darkness is again complete. There, in the not-so-distant hay field, a cry clings to the wind until reaching your ear. A pause, then another joined by multiple voices. A chorus of primitive origin, passing over polished teeth, timeless cries from deep within. The song of the eastern coyote nips at your heels.

Few experiences here in Massachusetts can bring us back to a place so ancient. We no longer answer to a call of the wild except on rare occasions, when the last of large beasts or predators cross our paths. In recent years, though, that call is more often present—even nearby.

The eastern coyote, Canis latrans, did not inhabit our landscape until the latter half of the 20th century. A cross between a western coyote and a northern timber wolf, the animals found in New England today have, on average, longer legs than their western relatives and a wide variation of weight—30 to 75 pounds. A large male could easily be mistaken for a wolf. Extremely adaptable, intelligent and efficient predators, they are actually omnivorous, but prefer meat when it’s available.

In the system of checks and balances inherent in nature, coyotes’ numbers were controlled by wolves. Wolves are the top predator on our continent and they have evolved mechanisms that control their own populations. The wolf pack’s Alpha male and female are the only breeding pair, the extended family help in rearing the pups, and the pack rules a large territory so as not to deplete the balance of animals on their range.

Coyotes, on the other hand, evolved as prey of wolves, so their reproductive strategy is different: every female coyote breeds to ensure survival by numbers. But in the absence of wolves, coyotes become the top predator but every female continues to breed. This creates a predator imbalance, devastating to prey animals and competing predators—some habitats lose certain species altogether. I’ve seen this firsthand: In the past 15 years I have found areas once teeming in wildlife diversity devoid of rabbits and grouse and with depleted deer populations. I have also found deceased owls that have starved to death due to a lack of rodents.

State wildlife biologists insist that coyotes have little effect on deer herds, but my observations offer evidence to the contrary. In the less hilly terrain of the eastern half of our state where the winters aren’t so severe, those biologists may be right. However, in our western half with its steep slopes and harder winters, during years of high coyote numbers the scenario for deer is bleak.

Coyote prey on deer at several life stages—fawns, older members, and dominant bucks exhausted following the breeding season—and indiscriminately during periods of severe icing, or when deep snow is covered with a crust. The natural instinct of deer during icy conditions is to sit tight and rely on stored fat reserves until a thaw or new snowfall makes conditions favorable for them to move. Coyotes, with their lighter weight and wider feet relative to body size, are able to move well during icy or crusted conditions, staying on top. They move deer from their bedding areas, forcing them to flee over the treacherous surface, where they are easy prey. Normal numbers of coyotes would not adversely affect deer herds even during these conditions, but a larger population poses a real threat.

As a tracker/naturalist I understand and enjoy the presence of coyotes. But I also understand the importance of balance. In the absence of wolves and with an abundant food supply, coyote populations balloon; this can lead to loss of wildlife diversity. Our challenge is to find ways of restoring balance in our fields and forests without ourselves causing more disruption.

Alan Emond is a tracker and farmer living in Colrain, Massachusetts.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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