Wildlife: Adaptable coyote increases population

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A few nights ago at 9 p.m., the thermometer on the back porch read a spring-like 60 degrees. I listened patiently and soon heard a "yip." And then another. The local family group of coyotes was passing thorough the valley below.

For several years, I've been hearing coyotes occasionally, but I've still never seen one. And that's a big reason they have become so increasingly common and widespread. They are shy and ever alert. Some people attribute the coyote's success to intelligence. I think it's natural selection at work.

I often hear from readers who blame state wildlife agencies for increasing coyote populations. They insist that biologists released coyotes to control deer populations. It's a classic rural legend, and it is not true.

Coyotes are native to Western prairie states. They began expanding their range eastward at least 80 years ago. In "The Clever Coyote" (University of Nebraska Press), first published in 1951, authors Stanley Young and Hartley Jackson list Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia among 21 Eastern states where coyotes had been living for at least 20 years. Today they occur in every state east of the Mississippi River.

It's easy to attribute the coyote's success to innate intelligence and guile. Certainly coyotes are smart, but more important they are adaptable opportunists. Individuals that survive and breed are the ones that avoid traps and stay just out of rifle range. And most important, when poisoned, trapped and hunted mercilessly by predator control agents out West, they responded by making more coyotes.

When coyote populations decline, more females breed and they produce larger litters. So when Western sheep ranchers persecuted coyotes in the 1950s and 1960s, coyote reproductive rates increased. Females in controlled populations averaged seven pups per litter compared to four in uncontrolled populations. The result was that intense efforts to kill coyotes rarely resulted in long-term control. That remains true today, and it has just as much to do with fertility as intelligence.

Consider Pennsylvania, where coyotes enjoy no protection -- there's no closed season and no bag limit. The Game Commission reports that the coyote harvest jumped from fewer than 2,000 in 1990 to more than 20,000 in 2006. And yet coyotes thrive.

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Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 AM WVLY (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 AM WMNY (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Rd., Cameron, WV 26033.


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