Coyote cuts trail of controversy in eastward trek

The coyote -- one of the symbols of the American West -- has found a new home in the Eastern United States. And, as usual, it's getting a less-than-hospitable reception.

No stranger to the muzzle of a shotgun or the telltale sign of a trapper's snare, the species reportedly is flourishing despite elimination efforts that have followed its migration across the continent.

Battle lines are being drawn quickly over the Eastern coyote because, like ranchers in the West who have hunted, trapped, and poisoned it for generations to protect livestock, Eastern hunters perceive the predatory animal as a nuisance.

On the other hand, environmentalists claim the coyote is the "fall guy" for every ill of the wilderness. Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based group, heads the list of environmental organizations including Audubon groups, humane societies, and state natural resources councils that intend to protect the coyote from massive control efforts like those in the West that may have helped trigger the movement of generations of coyotes to the East. The same control efforts, they believe, drove the coyote's cousin, the timber wolf, to near extinction.

While the first coyotes appeared in the East at the turn of the century, substantial numbers of them did not become apparent until the past few years. Now they are seen darting across highways, heard howling on the fringes of suburban developments, and they are accused of killing deer and livestock, say wildlife officials.

Biologists believe evolution of the eastern coyote involved some crossbreeding with domestic dogs and wolves in its eastward migration.

Slightly larger than its Western counterpart, but still resembling a grizzled German shepard, the coyote arrived in the East by crossing frozen rivers in the Midwest and traveling north, over the Great Lakes, says Helen McGinnis, a Pennsylvania biologist.

Other predators like the wolf and bobcat have been largely pushed out of the East by man, and the coyote has successfully filled that "ecological niche," she adds.

Although exact populations in the East are undocumented, wildlife officials estimate that 10,000 roam the State of Maine alone.

"I'd say they're in every county in New York now . . . but the public at large really isn't aware of this," says Robert E. Chambers, professor of wildlife ecology and management at the State University of New York at Syracuse.

"No one is neutral" about the coyote in Maine, says one state wildlife official there. He says hunting interests have made the animal's presence a "full-blown issue."

Questions about the coyote's choice of prey are what bother Eastern deer hunters. The hunters don't like the competition for game they say they are getting from coyotes, and they have proposed bounties and extended trapping seasons for the coyote in Maine.

They have even flown in federal wildlife officials to teach them coyote control measures used in the West. These techniques have included poisoning, trapping, and "denning," a method in which hunters find coyote dens and shoot the pups. In Massachussetts, where the animal has been protected, public hearings have drawn large crowds to discuss a proposal to open a hunting season on the coyote.

Environmentalists say hunters are exaggerating the effect of coyotes on the Eastern deer population. Actually, the bushy-tailed canine, a member of the same biological family as the dog, jackal, and fox, eats almost anything it can get its teeth on, explains biologist McGinnis, who has found everything from berries to paper and plastic in coyote carcasses.

Naturalists admit that coyotes will prey on deer, under unusual circumstances. But, says James Sherburne, head of the wildlife department at the University of Maine at Orono, "a 30- to 40-pound animal [the average weight of the coyote] normally isn't going to depend upon prey two or three times its weight."

Professor Sheburne adds that coyotes, unlike wolves, travel alone or in pairs , are reclusive, and prey largely on rodents or on the easiest food source available. Thus, a deer weakened by a rough winter, or one that has fallen on an icy pond, could be a target for the coyote.

Professor Chambers, too, admits that coyotes are not averse to taking a deer if the opportunity presents itself. For example, he cites the fact that in northern Arizona 90 percent of this year's fawn antelope were killed by coyotes.

This and other infrequent instances, environmentalists say, are fodder for Eastern hunters' suspicions about the coyote.

Although Maine wildlife officials can provide no data on how many deer coyotes supposedly have killed, the animal is getting the blame for sparse herds in some areas.

"We feel in areas of poor habitat, in severe winters, the coyote could affect the deer population by preventing a return in the increase of deer," says Gerald Lavigne, of the Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department.

Another official says that while the coyote alone is not responsible for thin herds, the species had the unfortunate timing of becoming visible when the deer problem emerged. The eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick had lean deer populations before the coyote showed up there, he says.

Environmentalists also dispute the claim that coyotes will damage Eastern livestock populations. While not a major problem yet, livestock predation -- largely on sheep -- has been reported in some Eastern areas.

US Fish and Wildlife Department statistics show that in 1977 coyotes killed 4 percent of the lambs in the West -- a $14 million loss to farmers. Yet those losses affected only 40 percent of Western ranchers, implying that livestock predation is a problem only with some coyotes, says Meg Durham, with the federal agency.

Besides, she says, "there isn't really evidence that . . . control activities have been detrimental to the species. It appears that coyote populations are actually increasing."

She agrees with many environmentalists that lessons learned in the West should be implemented in dealing with the eastern coyote. This means dealing with the coyote on an individual basis.

It isn't profitable or necessary to try to eliminate the animal on a large scale, agrees John Hunt, a coyote specialist with the Maine Wildlife Deparment.

Biologists note that due to generations of relentless hunting by man, the coyote has adapted so well that it can actually detect hidden traps. For example, coyote pelts can bring as much as $165 apiece, but because of the large number of traps needed to catch a single coyote, trappers don't always make a profit.

Rather than declaring open season on the coyote, as some have suggested, Mr. Hunt says the answer might be flexible regulations that would allow game officials to determine where a coyote problem exists and then let hunters work the area day and night for a few days.

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