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coyote america

20 october 2016

It's common enough to see coyotes here in Texas. My partner keeps a horse at a stable out south of Fort Worth, and frequently sees coyotes at dawn and dusk, even occasionally in the daylight. I used to live in a house that backed onto a railway, and I'd see coyotes ambling up and down the embankment: they clearly used the right-of-way as a path between their various habitats. (Appropriately, a roadrunner used to nest in the scrub near the tracks, but Looney Tunes action was lacking.) Coyotes are a frequent sight – and of course even more frequent sound – in the twilight all over the Dallas metro area, and somehow one assumes they would be. This is not quite the desert southwest (the ancestral range of the coyote), but in August it feels like it, and one gets the impression that Dallas and Fort Worth were built over coyote habitat, incorporating it into their sprawl.

In Coyote America, Dan Flores argues that human encroachment on coyote habitat is only a small part of the picture. Emerging, long ago, from a desert habitat, coyotes spread north and south across the Great Plains as the first humans arrived, and then, even more counter-intuitively, east and west to the seaboards as Euro-Americans filled the same territories. People and coytes increased and multiplied together, even as people frantically tried to exterminate coyotes. Coyotes, like humans, are smart, are omnivores and opportunists, and they show "fission-fusion" social characteristics (so that they can form hunting packs, but can also forage as lone individuals, making them very difficult to find and kill en masse). Like humans, though perhaps less consciously, they can adjust their fertility to their environment, producing fewer offspring in flush times and more when there's a niche to populate, or when their numbers are under siege from predators (like us). From time to time, Flores establishes, coyotes have hybridized with wolf populations, at least in the eastern U.S.; the "red wolf" is basically a wolf-coyote mix. Coyotes, in other words, are pretty near extinction-proof.

The last point is a central paradox in Flores' book. Americans have done very well at exterminating widespread, populous species: passenger pigeons, and very nearly wolves and bison quite deliberately; others like the ivory-billed woodpecker more inadvertently, via habitat disintegration. But few species have ever been the target of such a vast official effort to destroy them as coyotes – without making the slightest impact on their populations.

Coyotes, as a species, respond to pushes and pulls. Pushed from their rural habitats by poisons and firearms, they have gone urban in the past few decades. Flores is fascinated by the way that cities like Denver, Chicago, and even New York have become de facto coyote preserves. Safe from hunting, with inexhaustible supplies of mice and rats to eat, coyotes have colonized major urban areas. They almost never attack people. Three-year-old Kelly Keen, killed in suburban Los Angeles 35 years ago by a coyote, is the only known urban victim. (There has only been one rural victim, Taylor Mitchell in Nova Scotia in 2009). For comparison, a couple of dozen people are killed by dogs every year in the United States. Dogs are more common than coyotes, for sure, but hundreds of coyotes now inhabit major American cities. They really aren't coming for us. Yet.

Flores is pro-coyote, obviously. With good reason, he's unafraid of them (he lives in semi-rural New Mexico, where coyotes abound). American sympathies with regard to coyotes have oscillated between appreciation and revulsion. Flores hits some of the cultural touchstones: Mark Twain, an enemy. Gifford Pinchot, surprisingly, was no friend; George Grinnell, an early supporter. Michael Maltese and Chuck Jones created those Looney Tunes icons that made Wile E. Coyote an existential hero. Poet Simon Ortiz took Native Coyote legends and made modern literature from them. Aldo Leopold went from loathing to love, and helped energize a movement (expanded by activists like Camilla Fox) that led to conservation of predators as well as their charismatic prey. Walt Disney was a very influential friend. So too, for more complicated reasons, was Richard Nixon. Hideous poisons had been used in the American West for a century and more in a futile attempt to "control" coyote populations; Nixon put an end to mass poisonings. (Poisons would come back into use during the Reagan Administration.)

Ranchers, hunters, pro-business conservatives, and people who just like to shoot things remain among the coyote's worst enemies. Thousands of coyotes are still shot annually; the federal government subsidizes large-scale hunts from aircraft. Flores is particularly appalled by quite current country traditions of coyote-shooting contests, which really do recall the pigeon-shooting tournaments of the 19th century. Shooting coyotes is immoral, and it doesn't work: the worst of both ecological worlds.

Flores, Dan. Coyote America: A natural and supernatural history. New York: Basic [Perseus], 2016. QL 737 .C22F63