Coyotes in WyEast Country

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.

Natural Survivors

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.

Close Call at White River Falls

The magnificent desert falls on the White River survived a close brush with disaster this month, when a throwback proposal by Wasco County to divert the river as part of a new hydropower project was scrapped.

Like so many hydro projects of decades passed, this one would have had “little impact”, according to proponents. Yet, as we take in the summertime view of the 90-foot plunge pictured above, it’s obvious that diverting the river would have an immediate impact on the natural beauty of the area. Would half the falls be diverted? Two-thirds? All of it?

(click here for a PDF of Dalles Chronicle article)

Though the Wasco County proposal was ultimately dropped because of concerns voiced by the Oregon State Parks Commission, it wasn’t for lack of “goodies” offered up in exchange for the diversion. The County promised trail improvements for recreation, and interpretive facilities for the structures left behind from the last hydro project here.

White River Falls with the rocky gulch of Devils Halfacre in the background

The old plant was shut down in 1960, and the land subsequently transferred to the state, first as the “Tygh Valley State Wayside”, then today’s “White River Falls State Park.”

The falls and adjacent White River Gorge are truly a forgotten gem in Oregon, save for a few fishermen in spring and fall, and a lot of teenagers in summer, seeking out the swimming holes below the falls. Yet, the area is only two hours from Portland, and offers some of the most accessible desert scenery in the state.

In recent years, hikers have begun to explore the area, following boot paths and game trails downstream toward the confluence with the Deschutes River, just over two miles below the falls.

White River Gorge from the falls overlook

What most visitors don’t know is that much of the rugged backdrop for the falls is private land. Most surprisingly, these private holdings include the most of the White River gorge, all the way to the Deschutes confluence, and this beautiful area has somehow escaped development over the years.

Concept: White River Gorge Recreation Area

With Wasco County politicians dreaming up hydro projects for the White River, this article is intended as a more forward-looking counterpoint that actually embraces the scenic and recreational values in the area.

As a starting point, the National Recreation Lands boundary that encompasses the larger Deschutes Canyon could be expanded to include White River Falls, White River Gorge and the adjacent Winter Ridge and Devils Halfacre areas. This could provide the direction needed for state and federal land agencies to begin acquiring private land and planning for recreation.

It’s unclear what the “National Recreation Lands” boundary actually means, however. It seems to mirror the Wild and Scenic River designation for the Deschutes Canyon on USGS maps, but may be an orphan from old federal plans and policies no longer in force. Current federal planning documents for the lower Deschutes Canyon are also badly out of date, so a better legal mechanism likely exists for recognizing the potential for recreation in the White River Gorge area. In the end, some sort of designation is needed to identify the extent of the new recreation area.

The following map outlines the concept, with the proposed new White River Gorge recreation area bounded in dashed red, existing White River Falls State park in green and federal land holdings (BLM) in yellow:

(Click here for a much larger, more readable map)

The proposal: a network of new desert trails

The main focus of the concept is to build new trails in the White River Gorge, proper, and on the adjacent highlands that I’ve called Winter Ridge for the purpose of this article. The gorge is mostly private land outside the present state park boundaries, so like all of the trail proposals called for in this article, a new White River Gorge trail implies public ownership or easement.

The dashed red lines on the map show the new trail extending through the canyon from the falls to the confluence with the Deschutes, along with a short viewpoint loop within the current state park boundaries. This would become a premier hiking trail in the region, providing a unique riverside hiking experience in a roadless desert canyon.

The first portion of this new trail would simply follow the existing route down to the old power plant, with a new loop climbing back to the trailhead, via a canyon viewpoint above the falls. This part of the proposal could be built now, as it falls entirely within the current state park boundary.

Remains from the former power station in White River Gorge

The canyon trail would offer a unique interpretive opportunity where relics of the old power plant still exist. The Wasco County hydro proposal recognized the historic importance of these structures, and called for interpretive improvements along this existing trail, at the penstock and in the old power plant. These historic structures have been badly vandalized over time, and could greatly benefit from some modest renovation and protection.

In addition to the White River Gorge trail, the proposal calls for a network of hike and bike trails over the broad slopes of Winter Ridge. This area rises steeply above the confluence of the Deschutes and White rivers, with views nearly 800 feet down into the gorge from the open crest. The west slopes drop gently to the trailhead at White River Falls, with sweeping views of Devils Halfacre, Tygh Ridge, Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson.

The proposed trails shown on Winter Ridge (in green on the map) are almost entirely along existing paths and roads, and would require little beyond signage to improve them for hikers and mountain bikers.

Desert mounds along Winter Ridge (the black dot is a juniper tree, for scale)

Though a portion of Winter Ridge is farmed with winter wheat, much of the terrain is in a native state. The upper slopes of the ridge feature an odd landform unique to the Lower Deschutes River country: countless mounds of soil and rock, often organized in rows. They span 10-20 feet in width, and stand a few feet in height.

These odd “desert mounds” appear on shallow slopes and hilltops throughout the Tygh Ridge area, and this would be one of the few areas where visitors could examine these mysterious formations, up close, and learn some of the many theories about their origin.

Thinking Big: an expansive trail network at Devils Halfacre

It is impossible to stand at White River Falls and not notice the rugged, picturesque rim rock cliffs and massive bluffs that rise to the south of the White River Gorge. This rocky maze is the Devils Halfacre, and though in private holdings now, it offers an especially interesting potential for recreation.

Black basalt cliffs and talus slopes of Tuskan Ridge rise above the White River Gorge

The area falls into two general units: the rocky gulch of Devils Halfacre, proper, and the huge mesa forming the east wall of the gulch, which I’ve called Tuskan Ridge for the purpose of this proposal (see map). A network of trails and dirt tracks already exists here, and could easily be adapted to become an exceptional hike and bike trail network. These trails would lead hikers, bikers or possibly equestrians past rugged rock formations to spectacular, cliff-top viewpoints.

The Devils Halfacre area has excellent potential for trailhead access from both Highway 216 and Oak Springs Road. The terrain here rivals popular destinations in the eastern Columbia River Gorge, and would offer a unique chance to bring sustainable recreation tourism to the local economy.

Looking Forward

The concept presented here is just one way in which recreation and landscape restoration could be combined to preserve the White River Gorge area.

The intense demand for mountain biking opportunities also offers the potential to transform the local economy, especially since the area is just far enough from the Portland metropolitan area to draw overnight and weekend visitors who could support local businesses.

Mount Hood, rising across Tygh Valley from Winter Ridge

At a minimum, now is the time for Wasco County to aim for a more sustainable vision for White River Falls and its surroundings, instead of rehashing old, exploitive ideas that would degrade the area, and that have already failed here, before.

The Oregon State Parks Commission was right to challenge the County’s attempt to turn back the clock at White River Falls. Now would be the perfect time for the County to partner with the Parks Commission and federal agencies to forge a new vision that does justice to the remarkable landscape that exists here.