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Coyotes Among Us

That wasn’t just a big dog!

Photo by Hanna May on Unsplash

A couple of weeks back, I saw a coyote the woods.

Where I work, great stands of trees weave in and out among the buildings and roads. I spotted the coyote while returning from lunch. He or she stood among the foliage, watching cars drive by rather like a dog in somebody’s yard watching the passing traffic. But this wasn’t a domestic dog. I suspected it was a coyote.

I wasn’t sure if coyotes actually lived in our area. I had seen one a couple of decades ago in Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I also knew a fair population lives in the Indianapolis area where my oldest daughter’s family resides. Coyotes can sometimes be heard howling in the night there, and occasionally one wanders into a neighborhood and has to be removed. But Maryland?

It turns out coyotes used to live here 1,000 years ago, but during the time of the European incursion into the New World, the primary dog in the region was the eastern wolf. Wolves and humans have a dicey relationship. Farmers with livestock to protect launched campaigns to kill the creatures, and were so effective that by the early 19th century few remained. Mountain lions, another key predator, suffered the same fate. But nature abhors a vacuum, or more properly in this case, life expands to fill all available niches. The vacancy left by the decimation of the wolf population was soon filled as coyotes expanded their range back into the east.

The State of Maryland’s website on the subject notes a humorous but wrong rumor about the rise of the coyote population in the east: allegedly, insurance companies imported them in an effort to reduce the incidence of drivers colliding with deer! But no. The coyotes came on their own, simply because they could. They are now found throughout the state and probably have interbred with such wolves as are still around, yielding the much-discussed coywolf, a creature both incredibly smart and well-adapted to life in close proximity to humans. It’s possible the coyote I saw was actually a coywolf.

Some Maryland residents regard coyotes as an invasive species that should be eradicated. But hold on. What constitutes an invasive species? Just this: any organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native. Most of the time, invasive species are introduced through human action, either deliberate (as with starlings) or accidental (as with zebra mussels). We don’t usually count as invasive organisms whose range shifts as a result of natural processes. If we did, every species including our own would have to be branded invasive!

Coyotes expanded their range not because they were introduced to new areas by humans but because ecological space existed for them thanks to the destruction — by humans — of other predators. Now that they’re here, they aren’t causing ecological damage. They’re just doing what their predecessors did, taking their place in the food chain. People don’t like them primarily because they can prey on farm animals, but any economic damage coyotes might cause is certainly no greater than that caused by wolves, which were native. So our canine neighbors don’t count as an invasive species. Sorry.

Even so, people sometimes fear being attacked by a coyote. Does that happen?

Actually, coyotes are more likely to be attacked by humans than the other way around. Still, they are wild animals with sharp teeth, and they’ll use them if necessary. Most instances of humans getting bitten by coyotes have involved a homeowner trying to rescue a pet from a hungry coyote. A few have involved cornered or rabid coyotes, but such attacks are very rare, and there are only two known cases of humans being killed by coyotes in the U.S. and Canada. So fear of these animals is a bit overblown.

The basic rules for managing encounters with coyotes are the same as with any other wild animal. Don’t approach them. Don’t make them feel threatened. And for God’s sake, don’t feed them, because that just makes them want to hang around! You likely won’t run across a coyote anyway, but if you do, there is little danger so long as you don’t cause a problem yourself.

Just call your local wildlife control people. They’ll know what to do.

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