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In cartoons and nature, coyote is a survivor

  • The Eastern coyote, photographed on the author’s game camera, is a newcomer to New England’s forests. Loved by some and reviled by others, this resilient canine is likely to remain here for a long time. COURTESY PHOTO

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Monday, March 26, 2018 5:48PM

If you’re a Boomer like me, you may remember Coyote and Roadrunner, the animated cartoon series set in the desert Southwest. In every episode, Wile E. Coyote devises some complex contraption in hopes of capturing his favored prey, Roadrunner, who relishes speed and good timing.

Wile E.’s efforts are always in vain and ultimately work against him, as boulders or dynamite – once aimed at Roadrunner – become aimed at himself.

But no matter the consequence, Wile E. Coyote always persists. He is resourceful and clever. He is resilient. He survives.

A relative newcomer

In the real world, if there was a poster child for resilience, it would be the coyote. And our own subspecies, the Eastern coyote (Canis latrans var.) is no exception. It is not only a survivor, it is resourceful from its day-to-day ways to its long-term fitness as a species.

The story is long and complicated, but the coyote is a relative newcomer to the New England landscape. Its Western counterparts started spreading east through Canada and Mid-Atlantic states in the late 1800s and early 1900s, mixing genetically with wolves in the process. Filling an ecological niche vacated by the disappearance of wolves, the first accounts of coyotes in New Hampshire were in Grafton County in 1944.

Our Eastern coyotes weigh 30 to 50 pounds, twice the size of Western coyotes, but much smaller than a wolf. And unlike and the largely carnivorous wolf, the Eastern coyote is more of a dietary generalist, eating seasonally available foods, like berries, apples, snowshoe hare, deer (including fawns and roadkill), mice, squirrels and other rodents.

The coyote as target

Widespread and present in possibly every town in New Hampshire, our wily coyote is seldom seen, mysterious and steadily the source of myth and theories.

Sometimes when I’m hunting, I’ve run into fellow deer hunters who are on an extermination campaign against the coyote, blaming it for perceived low deer numbers, cruelty to deer, threatening cats and dogs that roam outside, and other assorted conspiracies, true or false. They say that reducing coyote numbers will bring a corresponding increase in deer numbers. I’m not so sure.

What a hunter chooses to hunt or not hunt is a personal choice. Personally, I don’t hunt coyotes. I don’t see the point. It won’t feed my family. It doesn’t threaten the forest understory. I don’t have farm animals. It’s a dog (and I’m a dog-lover), intelligent, resourceful, clever and nurturing to its young. It’s a survivor.

Unlike most game species, there is no closed season on coyotes in New Hampshire. No bag limit. Baiting and electronic calling devices are allowed. You can take male, female, pups, healthy, sick, whatever you want, all year. Hunters don’t have to report their kill; trappers do, and they take a few hundred every year during a five-month season. A licensed hunter can hunt coyotes at night from Jan. 1 through March 31.

Coyote killing contests

Despite the liberal rules on taking coyotes, some folks say that there’s simply too many coyotes – not enough deer – and claim that they pose some threat to the natural order of things (or at least deer numbers). One local sporting goods store tries to ramp up the pressure on coyotes by holding an annual contest to see who can bring in the heaviest coyote.

Never mind the negative image this kind of a contest brings to hunters and the ethics of hunting, it reinforces the narrative around coyotes as demon predators and deer-herd decimators.

There’s a school of thought that coyotes respond to lower numbers by having larger or more frequent litters. It’s called responsive – or compensatory – reproduction. Chris Schadler of Webster is the New Hampshire and Vermont representative of Project Coyote, a national organization that advocates co-existence with coyotes and other predators. She’s among coyote advocates who say the science of reproductive response is well-established and reinforces the need for coexistence – not extermination – of coyotes.

But biologists at the N.H. Fish and Game Department say that reproductive response is far from settled science, noting many questions and challenges from fellow biologists. They do agree, however, that the coyote’s remarkable resilience will ensure its place on New Hampshire’s landscape – alongside deer and people – for a long, long time.

A reasonable proposal spiked

They also recognize that biological and social factors may be pushing momentum toward tighter restrictions on coyote hunting. Fish and Game’s biologists recently proposed closing the hunting season on coyotes from April 1 through July 15. This is when coyotes are raising their pups, a two-parent endeavor by adult female and male coyotes.

Among our neighboring states, only Massachusetts closes the hunting season during pup-rearing. Vermont and Maine have no closed season.

When staff biologists brought this reasonable rule-change proposal to the N.H. Fish and Game Commission, the commission balked. The commission is an 11-member politically appointed panel, one member for each county, plus a seacoast member. The commission oversees department policy and budget issues. And while it is charged with safeguarding New Hampshire’s wildlife resources, it has been criticized for decades for aligning too closely with narrow hunting interests.

During their meeting in January, commissioners questioned the need for the closure, along with the aspect of responsive reproduction. After a back and forth with biologists, commissioners spiked the biologists’ proposal. That stopped the coyote proposal from going to a public hearing, along with other rule changes that did move forward.

Nevertheless, the coyote will prevail. Coyote will outlast the hunt. It will outlast trappers. It will outlast killing contests. It will outlast the archaic N.H. Fish and Game Commission. It may even outlast humanity.

The coyote is resilient. It’s a survivor.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock. Contact him at ericadine@gmail.com.