The Crazy Reason Why Killing Coyotes Won’t Get Rid of Them

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Some people think America has a gun problem. Some other people think America needs more people roaming crowded city streets with AR-15s shooting at animals. What I’m saying is that there are two sides to this argument, both of them equally valid.

Just kidding! One of those sides is not in any way valid but they’re getting a fair portrayal in the New York Times because that’s what we do these days. The animal in question is the coyote, a distinctly American beast that has experienced a checkered history here. Coyotes have spread into more and more large American cities, like New York, Chicago, and even right here in San Francisco. They’re native to this area, but in the 1930s the US government set about extirpating them nationwide. They were seen as dangerous to humans and a nuisance that, like wolves (eradicated in the 1920s) hunted the same game humans were hunting. Neither of those was correct, but the US government devoted millions of dollars to destroying them before scientists had even studied them.

All the government’s efforts went to waste, though. In 2004 San Francisco officials spotted a coyote walking across the Golden Gate Bridge at night to sneak into the Presidio, and a decade later they’re in neighborhoods all over the city.

Now people are scared of them again, since they have occasionally killed cats and small dogs, and once 30 years ago a coyote apparently killed a 3-year old in LA. Hunters are jumping at the chance to “help” by asking for (and in many cities and suburbs getting) permission to gun down coyotes and sell their fur. One hunter interviewed by the Times offers tips on convincing homeowners to allow hunting in and around their property by “promising to hunt only at dawn or dusk to avoid cyclists and joggers, and when dealing with especially reluctant people, to offer to use a crossbow instead of a firearm.” As a cyclist and a jogger: WHAT THE FUCK do you think we only go for runs and rides during working hours? Jesus. And yes, this hunter uses an AR-15 assault rifle, when he’s not trying to win over reluctant homeowners with his crossbow.

Obviously it’s a terrible idea to let idiots wander city streets with assault rifles firing at any 30-pound quadriped they think they see — in fact, I’m much more worried about me, my dog, or a random cat being hurt or killed by a hunter than by a coyote, which are known to avoid humans whenever possible.

But there’s another reason to not let hunters “cull” coyotes and remove them from our cities: because biologists say it won’t work.

The US spent millions of dollars over a century and a half trying to exterminate coyotes, but today they inhabit three times as much land as they ever did before the program started. They used to be found only in the west, but now they exist coast to coast, and from Mexico all the way to Canada. That happened in part because first we killed their only other predator: wolves. But it also was spurred by our deathwish. Coyotes usually prefer to live in packs that are hierarchical, in which only the “alpha” male and female mate and produce offspring. But when they’re threatened, they split up into pairs, each of which can then mate and have offspring. Their howls inform them of how many other coyotes are out there, and if they don’t get enough of a response, they kick their mating into high gear. They breed at younger ages and their litter sizes double or even triple. Coyotes are a fascinating example of a species that adapts and not just survives, but thrives.

When the extirpation program unintentionally spurred their numbers and pushed the population across the country, coyotes even started breeding with the few remaining wolf species they started running into in the east. So now we also have “coywolves” running around, which is fucking amazing.

So not only will hunting the coyotes probably not help, it will probably make the situation worse, especially considering that when left alone, coyotes won’t overbreed — they will control their own population to lessen intra-species competition.

And in the meanwhile, the coyotes we so desperately want exterminated aren’t stealing our food or hunting our babies — they’re doing hardcore pest control, eating our rats and our mice, and even our feral cats. Yes, I love cats and don’t want to see them killed, but cats belong in the home where they are safe from cars and coyotes and budding psychopaths, and where they can be prevented from decimating our songbird population. Coyotes are in fact amazing animals that are a healthy, beneficial part of our ecosystem.

While I don’t mind that coyotes eat the occasional feral cat, I do mind that they eat the occasional family dog. And that’s why instead of killing coyotes, we just need to study them more and educate our society more. We need to know when and where they’re making dens (because they’ll be more aggressive toward humans who come near offspring), and we need to know where and when they’re active so that people can avoid allowing dogs off-leash near them.

Coyotes are everything that we want America to be about: clever, beautiful, and able to adapt and overcome extreme obstacles. Here’s hoping we stop idiot humans from basically making a non-problem into a huge problem.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. (In B4!)

    Sounds like you have a real coyfefe situation!

    Seriously, the big problem could be when coyotes or coywolves (wolfotes?)
    interbreed with domestic doges.

    The offspring will have no or much diminished:
    1 fear of humans
    2 loyalty to humans

    thus destroying thousands of years of careful breeding and greatly increasing the likelihood of attacks on humans, particularly infants as well as on domestic dogs.

    1. By the way, in case that was unclear, I am not supporting hunting, much less extermination of coyotes.

      Responsible owners will source their dogs from licensed breeders rather than backyard breeders (“puppy farms”) and ensure their dogs are neutered.

      This should prevent the problem of interbreeding.

      I assume these measures are standard in the US?

  2. I’ve seen two coyotes in San Francisco. I had heard them in Glen Canyon many times in the evening. Then some years ago we were walking one of our dogs and saw a beautiful one trotting down the canyon sides to the creek. It didn’t seem to mind all the people around, including all the dogs. Here’s a short clip of one on top of a rock outcrop at the upper end of Glen Canyon:

    Recently I saw another one making its way through the Forest Hill area, followed at some distance by a large yellow tabby. Watch out kitty!

    Interesting info about their breeding behavior. I told my wife who said it’s good their population has expanded because it means fewer rats. Apparently there’s film of them catching rats in the Presidio.

    I’m optimistic that SF will find other ways to deal with them. At a city hearing in 2016, Animal Care and Control basically said what you are saying: they are here to stay and killing them won’t help. Also, relocation is out because there are plenty of them everywhere already.

    But then there are the mountain lions. They just caught one in the Glen Canyon area, and one was filmed in the Sea Cliff area shortly before that. Scary to think about my 26 year old son walking around the City (literally…40 something miles) in the middle of the night.

  3. Coyotes usually prefer to live in packs that are hierarchical, in which only the “alpha” male and female mate and produce offspring.

    Uh… Not so sure of this. There are a lot of people “convinced” this is the way wolves work too, but the man who originated the idea in a very popular book on the subject, less than a year later, realized he had screwed up, and its was actually a family of two wolves, and their offspring, which he had been observing and attempted to get his own book pulled from publication. The publisher refused, and, literally, everyone that had read it told him to F off, more or less. The very “idea” of alpha pack members is apparently such a draw for idio.. err, humans, that they refuse to listen to anything suggesting it was incorrect. Worse, we have seen much the same sort of thing in the past with any number of animal studies – where the studier(s) had gotten an idea in their head about how a species “should” work, according to them, then flat out refused to change their opinion on the subject, despite evidence of contradictions. They did this, for nearly 100 years, with birds – insisting that all birds formed permanent pairings, and only mated in that pair. It took genetic research to bloody prove, beyond all argument to the contrary, that in fact most birds cheat more than a Republican on tax forms, and a high percentage of offspring are “outside” the pairing.

    So.. I somehow suspect that this is another example of the same logic – We see them in big packs. When it big packs there are not a lot of offspring among them. They seem to form some level of leadership structure, and “alphas” just make so much freaking sense, for some reason (even if the guy that invented the idea screwed up when he did so, and tried to withdraw it). Being a species we consider annoying, no one is bothered, at all, to bloody do genetic research to verify if this is even true. Therefor their “real” behavior, or forming lots a of pairs, must be an anomaly, which only happens when you undermine their “normal” pack behavior.

    Mind, maybe this time they are right, and “packs” with “alphas” are correct. But, maybe this is another freaking land bridge – referencing the absolute refusal of even academics to abandon the stupid idea that the Americas where settled via an “land bridge” during ice ages, when all evidence (including genetics) says the people that settled bloody got here from places they would have never crossed such a bridge from, like Asia.

    The “idea” is just so… something.. that people won’t bloody give it up, any more than you can find almost anyone that “knows” that the author of the book about alpha wolves retracted it, and explained why, but *everyone* does know that wolves form packs run by leaders, who are (in complete contradiction to known facts) the only ones that “breed”. I am suspect, based on this that coyote behavior is just as “well understood”, and “accurate”. After all.. its such an important and interesting species that we figured out all this stuff *before* turning into a scattered mess, making their “real” behavior so well understood.

    Still there are bloody twits out there than insist that red wolves also “can’t be” what they are either, despite all genetic evidence that says, conclusively, “There is no unique genes here that are not found in both coyote and wolves, which would make them something other than a mixed species.”

  4. As an aside, “coywolf” is a stupid name. Unlike full wolves, they aren’t coy at all. (Full wolves are frightened of humans. Coyotes are not.)

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