Are coyotes smarter than humans? There are many times that I think so. Humans generally dislike coyotes; probably because they compete with us. Successfully. Coyotes are increasing their range. Their population is also growing. What are people doing about that? And — should we really be doing anything?
Coyotes are poisoned. They are shot from airplanes and helicopters. Our government sends trappers out. There are coyote calling and hunting contests. Almost a half-million coyotes are killed in the U.S. every year. Yet coyotes continue to range further afield. They live in downtown Los Angeles. No one is sure quite how many are there, but undoubtedly coyotes are in every part of the city.
Chicago and New York City also have extensive coyote populations. Coyote range has increased over 40% since 1950. Once found only on the open prairie, they now range from Central America to the tundra of Alaska.
To the best of my knowledge, the first coyote arrived in Paxson, Alaska, sometime in the early 1970s. They are still around. Deep snow years send them scurrying back to the Delta Junction area or Glennallen, but they will be back — on the edge of the melting snow. Coyotes can live in almost any conditions and will eat anything they can find. Hares and voles comprise most of their diet in Alaska. Berries, birds and fish are also common foods. City coyotes eat cats, rats and refuse.
Urban animals den in parks and in seldom frequented areas between houses. Our Alaskan coyotes are a bit more shy, preferring to den on well-drained hillsides well away from humans. They are also bigger than most stateside coyotes. Coyotes range from 20-50 pounds. Alaskan animals are on the upper end of that scale.
Coyotes and dogs have a fair amount in common. They can interbreed with domestic dogs; the off spring are called “coydogs.” Coyote gestation is the same as our domestic dogs; 63 days. Four to six pups are born in early June. The young are cared for by both parents and are crawling from the den at four weeks. Coyotes hunt in family groups through the first winter. Females generally stay with the pack while young males find their own way by spring.
The natural predator of coyotes, not counting humans, are wolves. Reduce the wolf population and coyotes thrive. Folks are scared of wolves. We are not afraid of coyotes. Since 1977 there have been only two verified wolf attacks in North America, one of which was fatal. However, 367 coyote attacks have been recorded; two of which were fatal.
Coyotes are the most common large predator over most of North America. We have mostly exterminated the wolves down south. Mountain lions’ (which take an occasional coyote) range has also been substantially reduced. Our Alaskan coyote is limited more by environment than predation. I spotted a coyote from the air near the town of Naknek (Bristol Bay), back in the 1990s. In 2021 one ran along the beach near our setnet site. A buddy of mine trapped a couple on the tundra a few miles out of town. They are around, but not common.
Delta Junction may have the highest coyote population in the state. The big barley fields provide a lot of voles for coyotes to feed on. Trappers get a few, predator callers get a few more. Not enough to make a dent in the population. Coyotes kill an estimated four million dollars in livestock each year in the United States. The government kills about 70,000 coyotes a year and spends millions doing it.
The coyote population continues to increase in areas where they are hunted the hardest. A hard hit population recovers quickly by having larger litters. Nature does not like a void. Studies show that motion-activated lights and noise makers are reasonably successful deterrents. Those who know something about coyotes are skeptical. Experts believe if there is no harm done, then the coyote will just ignore those methods in a short time. Smaller fencing is a good solution for cattle farmers — but fencing is expensive. Woven horse fencing works for us small chicken and rabbit farmers, but is not cost effective for large farms.
The shotgun may be the best temporary solution humans can come up with. With a recent lesser demand for coyote pelts, there are fewer trappers in the field. It seems likely when all is said and done and humans are a distant memory, that the animals that have out-lived dire wolves and saber-toothed tigers may well join cockroaches and rats as the dominant species left on earth.
Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.