The coyote may be the most adaptive predator in North America, and its population is growing virtually unchecked in Pennsylvania.
By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In cartoons, Wile E. Coyote never had a chance against The Roadrunner. In real life that bird is lunch.
"If the world was wiped out, cockroaches and coyotes would survive," quipped Game Commission furbearer biologist Tom Hardisky.
Uniquely equipped to prey on foods of almost every type and size, the coyote is considered by many biologists the most adaptive predator in North America. In the last 20 years, coyotes have spread to every county in Pennsylvania. Quietly, they've moved into urban neighborhoods, often without the knowledge of residents. There's no evidence of a direct threat to people, but many unwittingly let their pets roam outside in unfenced areas. Sometimes, Fluffy doesn't make it home, and although only 25 pet deaths due to coyote predation were confirmed in Pennsylvania in 2012, the actual number is probably huge.
Last month, with bipartisan support, the state House approved a bill that would pay hunters and trappers $25 for a coyote pelt. The Game Commission calls that a "bounty," however, and cites 100 years of wildlife management science claiming that bounties are a bad management tool.
"They've been proven to not work. At least 50 to 60 years ago we ended the bounty system [in Pennsylvania]," said Hardisky. "With bounties you don't manage a species, you wipe it out, and there are repercussions on every other species. It's happened over and over. There's often fraud and the waste of taxpayer money. There is no science behind wildlife bounties."
One of the most prolific voices against bounties was that of Roger Latham, Pittsburgh Press outdoors editor from 1957 until his death in 1979. With a Penn State doctorate in zoology and wildlife management, Latham worked as a Game Commission biologist from 1937 through 1957 and ran the agency's Division of Research for six years. In 1959, while working for the Press, Latham wrote a rebuke of the bounty system, "Bounties are Bunk," that was published in a National Wildlife Federation publication.
"According to the many, many surveys and studies made, the payment of bounties on the smaller predators is one of the most inefficient and ineffective methods of all," wrote Latham. [... Fraud is synonymous with all bounty systems. Animals are brought in from other states and even other countries and pawned off on untrained officials."
Hardisky backed Latham's assertion that the bounty-funded removal of one predator inevitably results in a population explosion of another, disrupting natural prey-species population cycles.
"The money spent [on bounties]," wrote Latham, "can usually be used to better advantage in other ways."
"But this isn't a bounty, it's an incentive," said state Rep. Mike Peifer, R-Honesdale, sponsor of House Bill 1534.
An avid outdoorsman from the Poconos and member of the House Game and Fisheries Committee, Peifer said the Game Commission's open-season, no-bag-limit approach to coyote control isn't working.
"Aside from during the February coyote derbies, nobody goes out hunting for coyotes," he said. "When a bow hunter sees one, he doesn't want to shoot it and ruin his chance to take a buck; bear hunters don't want to spoil the drive by stopping to shoot a coyote. Hunters like to eat what they kill, and you can't eat coyotes so they don't shoot them.
"What this [bill] does is incentivize the killing of more coyotes, get hunters to take an interest in hunting this species that has grown out of control."
It's true, the population of this extremely adaptive species has exceeded management goals, said Hardisky. In recent decades, eastern coyotes that were descended from wolf-coyote crossbreeding in Canada -- larger than their western cousins -- migrated south through New England into Eastern and Central Pennsylvania. New DNA research, he said, proves that most coyotes in Western Pennsylvania were descended from western coyotes that migrated eastward.
"Hunting can only do so much to control such an adaptive predator. But bounties fail on multiple levels -- there are better ways to do this," Hardisky said. "A lot of it is cultural. Farmers can reduce livestock predation through better husbandry practices -- good fencing, no free-ranging. And pet owners, they just have to accept that they can't let their pets out anymore."
House Bill 1534 has the support of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. Having passed the House, it has moved to the state Senate.
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