Killed coyote strung up on a fence along Center Ridge Road in Wasco County this winter
Author’s note: I’ve gone back and forth on whether to include some difficult images in this article. I hope readers will understand why it’s important to see them once you’ve read the piece.
As we reach the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic that has turned our world upside down, I’ve been reflecting on how I spent much of my outdoor time over the past year in the desert country east of Mount Hood, where I could spend an entire day without seeing another soul. Along the way, I reconnected with some of my favorite spots, and found many more that were new to me. I was reminded why I fell in love with dry side of the mountains when I lived and worked there for seven magical summers during my youth.
Over the past year of exploring the backroads east of the mountain, I also didn’t see a single killed coyote. Not one! This surprised me. It was once commonplace in sagebrush country to find their carcasses strung on barbed wire fences. Coyotes were vermin to old-school ranchers. Then, just last month, I ran across the familiar, grim scene captured at the top of this article. It was up on Center Ridge, in the rolling wheat country above the Columbia River. And yet, scenes like this that were once routine in ranch country have become rare these days. Why?
The rolling wheat fields on Center Ridge are prime habitat for coyotes (Dalles Mountain, Mount Adams and Mount Rainier are in the distance)
Perhaps because most ranchers today have advanced degrees in agriculture, their knowledge includes a formal science education that gives them an understanding of the benefits of living with predators, not exterminating them. They understand that top predators may be a nuisance to livestock, but they are also the ecological keystone that keeps the rest of the natural system in balance, which, in turn, is of even greater benefit to ranchers and farmers.
So, these days when I run across a shot, snared or poisoned coyote slung over a fence, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s the mark of an old timer — or simply someone who just doesn’t know any better. Old ways die hard. This used to be a standard practice based on the myth that the carcass would somehow cause other coyotes to shy away. That’s a tired idea borne of ignorance and unfounded hatred for the animals, nothing more.
Today’s ranchers in Oregon are far more likely to appreciate the benefits coyotes bring to their bottom line, especially in the wheat country along the eastern Columbia River Gorge. Along with raptors, coyotes keep the rodent population (mostly rabbits, gophers, mice and voles) in check, keep grazing deer on the move and generally mind their own business as they cruise their very large territories. They also feed on snakes and sometimes carrion, as well as fruit and grass in season. Packs of coyotes may even take down young or infirm deer or antelope, though this is uncommon.
This remnant grassland view of Tygh Ridge is what much of the east side looked like before the arrival of settlement farming in the 1800s and it remains prime coyote habitat today
Coyotes often roam in organized packs, led by an alpha male and female pair that often mate for life, and that are the only breeding pair in the pack. The beta coyotes in the pack are non-breeding, and simply help hunt and feed the offspring of the alpha pair. Thus, killing an alpha male or female (or both) simply splits up the pack, opening the surviving animals to pair with lone males to create still more coyote families. For this reason, modern ranchers also understand that killing coyotes to remove them from the landscape can have exactly opposite the intended effect.
Despite over a century of systematic killing, coyotes are flourishing and expanding their territory, and now live in 49 states. This is partly because of the proliferation of new breeding packs from the extermination of alpha pairs, but mostly it’s because they’re very smart. Like the domesticated dogs that we spend billions on each year to pamper and celebrate as companions, coyotes are quick to observe every detail of human behavior and learn our ways. For wild coyotes, that means avoiding people – and our various means of exterminating them. That’s why seeing a coyote in the wild is a treat, and is typically fleeting.
Their ability to adapt has also allowed coyotes to move into urban areas, including Portland, where they have assumed top predator status. We spot them right here in my neighborhood in North Portland, where they roam the large natural areas and prey upon rats, opossum, raccoons and – especially – feral cats. While that last part might be hard for some to accept, the fact is, feral cats are a major problem in urban areas as predators of native birds. The arrival of coyotes is helping mitigate the impact of these non-native carnivore in our cities. It’s also true that coyotes can prey upon small pets in the city, a reminder to humans to keep our pets in enclosed areas and indoors at night.
This young coyote was killed and strung up by a rancher on Dalles Mountain Road a few years ago. This used to be a common sight in the ranch country of the eastern Columbia River Gorge
Coyotes have also responded to our simultaneous war on cougars and wolves that began in the 1700s, and continues to this day. Where wolves and cougars were once the apex species in many parts of the country, and preyed upon or hazed the smaller coyote, it is the coyote that has adapted and stepped into the void left by the disappearance of these larger predators. As cougars and wolves begin to rebound in a few areas in the country, they are reclaiming their top predator role, once again keeping coyotes in check. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, the coyote population dropped by 40 percent!
Because of their size and potential threat to humans, wolves and cougars will likely always be less tolerated in our world. Though we’re just beginning to appreciate it, the role of coyotes as the substitute apex species in areas once roamed by wolves and cougars has helped keep natural systems in balance for all species – plant and animal.
Coyotes have an enormous range, with packs maintaining highly organized territories of anywhere from five to fifteen square miles – enough to cover multiple ranches, even in the sprawling wheat and sagebrush country east of Mount Hood. Like our domestic dogs, they have well-traveled routes, typically along ridgetops or along the edge of clearings where they can see the terrain and hunt for rodents. Mostly, they seek to avoid people in their rambles, which is understandable, given our history of hostility toward the species.
Coyote pups (Wikipedia)
In the wild, coyotes live short lives of just 5-10 years, though in captivity they can live up to 20 years. Adults in the wild typically weigh from 20 to 35 pounds, about the size of a Siberian Husky, though urban coyotes can reach as much as 45 pounds. Coyote alpha pairs can produce a litter of 2-12 pups annually, with pups reaching maturity in about 6 months. Coyote pups have a very high mortality rate of up to 90 percent, however, and only a few survive to adulthood. Some that survive will stay with their pack, others will roam and join other packs and a few males become lone coyotes, wandering on their own.
If you have the opportunity to see a coyote in the wild, you can’t help but be taken by how closely they resemble our domestic dogs, both in their appearance and behavior. They’re truly beautiful animals, and to watch them sprint upwards of 40 mph, it’s easy to see why native cultures celebrated both their intelligence and athleticism.
If you have the good fortune to hear a pack howling at night, it’s an especially memorable experience. No, they don’t represent a real threat to us, but it’s still quite humbling to hear them in the dark, knowing they are completely adapted to that environment and completely aware of us – even if we can’t see them. At night, we are in their realm.
Adult coyote hunting (Wikipedia)
The main threats to coyotes in the wild include some of the same canine diseases that threaten our domestic dogs, as well as lack of food and winter cold. In many parts of the country, humans continue to be a major threat with competitive “kill contests” still held to exterminate coyotes. In 2017, more than 11,000 coyotes were killed in Utah, alone, for $500,000 in bounties put up by state officials. Over 100,000 coyotes are still killed every year in the United States. Though these mass killings are gradually losing favor as science wins out over folklore, it’s still common for state wildlife agencies to promote methods for exterminating coyotes.
The good news is that ranchers and farmers are increasingly coming around to the benefits of co-existing with coyotes for all the good they bring to the land. This means changing their farming practices, especially during calving and lambing season in ranch country.
In Oregon, coyotes are classified as a non-game predator. What does that mean? It means that anyone can kill a coyote, with no limit or permit required. Thankfully, science is winning here, too. Wildlife agencies and agriculture science are evolving, promoting science-based best practices for farmers and ranchers to co-exist with coyotes. Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has replaced old-school instructions for coyote extermination on its website with new-school guidelines on how to co-exist. That’s real progress, though regulating coyote hunting will be a tougher political hurdle to clear.
Urban coyote in Lincoln Park, Chicago (Wikimedia)
The more worrisome trend is urbanites moving into farm and ranch country and bringing domestic cats and toy-breed dogs with them. These small pets make for easy prey for coyotes, especially when left to roam. Worse, people moving into ranch country often encourage coyotes to lose their fear of humans by leaving pet food outside and by not treating them as wild animals. Just as urbanities living in the country are a growing nuisance to farmers with their complaints about dust, noise and pesticides that come with farming, these folks may also emerge to be a new threat to coyotes, too, simply by encouraging them to lose their fear of us.
Despite these threats, and our long war against them, coyotes continue to adapt and thrive. Scientists now recognize 19 subspecies of coyote, including urban species that are now common in city parks and preserves across the country. Coyotes have observed us and figured us out, and they are here to stay. Their ability to adapt bodes well for the species, and for the ecosystems that increasingly depend on them as top predators, too.
Epilogue… and Prologue?
Over the winter, I was coming down a gravel road from Center Ridge into a narrow Easton Canyon, just south of The Dalles. I stopped to take a photo of Mount Hood when I spotted a group of Mule deer perfectly silhouetted against the last glow of sunset. I watched this lovely scene unfold for quite a while, until the deer had moved on and stars suddenly began to fill the night sky.
Mule deer silhouetted against Mount Hood in the Center Ridge area of Wasco County
As I was quietly packing up my camera gear in the dark, I was startled by a sudden series of loud, quick yips right behind me! A coyote was in the sagebrush directly above the road, somewhere along the canyon wall. Soon, more yips began to echo from across the canyon, first below me, then from across the canyon, then further up the canyon. The chorus grew until some of the yips turned to howls, then went silent, as quickly as they had started.
It was an eerie experience that made my hair stand on end. I’d heard coyotes many times before, but I had never been in the middle of a pack. Though I knew I wasn’t in danger, the moment still triggered a primal reaction – these were wild predators, after all. I hoofed it back to the car, quickly loaded up my gear and gave thanks for a truly memorable encounter.
So, when I came across that coyote carcass a few weeks ago, senselessly killed and strung up on a barbed wire fence, I couldn’t help but appreciate what was left of this once-beautiful, brilliant animal. Much of its handsome coat was still intact and moving in the breeze, its ears still pointed and perfect. Were it not mangled, ribs protruding, I might have thought it somehow alive.
A sad, senseless practice fading with time, a grim reminder of our ignorance and folly in attempting to control the natural world around us
The sight of this animal brought back that nighttime chorus under the stars from just a few weeks before, just a couple of miles from this spot. Had this unlucky coyote been among those that I heard that night? Quite possibly. It also gave me a deeper appreciation for the resiliency and balance of nature all around us, despite our relentless efforts to upset it. The coyotes are adapting and winning. Thankfully.
As a broader society, we’re slowly changing our thinking about predators, too. We’re getting better at observing and understanding them and beginning to accept their presence – especially coyotes. We seem to be on a path of learning to simply avoid coyotes just as they avoid us, ensuring that they remain truly wild. We’re learning to co-exist.
And that bodes well for all of us.