The sun had just come up and it was at my back. The wind-what there was of it-was in my face. I was kneeling at the edge of a stand of small aspens, looking across a meadow at a couple of apple trees. There were still a few apples on the higher branches. But none on the ground or the lower branches. The deer had eaten them.
But, I thought, one still might come by to check. I would give it an hour, then ease on up into the oaks where I usually hunted and where I thought there would be deer moving around for most of the morning.
I must have looked back downhill to admire the view because I never saw the coyote approach. One moment, there was nothing moving on the open ground in front of me and in the next, he was there. I certainly never heard it. It was pure stealth.
He was a big animal. Or bigger, anyway, than I might have expected. Close to fifty pounds, with all the weight in his chest and shoulders; the hips and hindquarters lean and sinewy. His coat was a kind of ginger color and it seemed to glow, almost, in the early light. He had a sharp, angular muzzle and a look that was deliberate, alert and undeniably dangerous.
Everything about him was magnificent.
I was in easy range-no more than twenty steps from the coyote-and I instinctively raised my bow and began to pull back on the string. But before I got to full draw, I released the pressure. There is no closed season on coyotes. It would have been a legal kill and nearby landowners would have probably thanked me for it. But I couldn’t do it.
So I watched as the coyote checked for scent around the apple tree and then moved on, across the meadow, with an easy gait but not meandering. He was on a straight-line course. Coyotes can walk such a precise line that their rear paws fall on the spot the front paws have just occupied. This is a serious, deliberate animal. A fine, and finely-tuned predator.
I’d heard coyotes, of course, many times, making their mournful night music. And I’d seen a few from the road and a couple in the woods, but always from a distance. I’d never been close enough, or watched long enough, to get a real and visceral sense of just what a powerful and purposeful animal the coyote is. Watching that one, for a few minutes, made my day.
The coyote is a newcomer to southern Vermont and the rest of New England. It was only as recently as the 1950s or 60s that they began showing up in numbers sufficient to make people take notice. They had been in the Adirondacks, where they were called “brush wolves,” longer than that-since, perhaps, the 1920’s. But they kept to the big woods where only hunters and trappers ever encountered them.
Then, they broke out and came around Lake Champlain, at both the north and south ends, and began to occupy territory that had not seen the presence of a major predator since the last catamount was killed in Vermont in 1881. It was rather like having a movie star with a compromised reputation-Mickey Rourke, for example-move into your town. Slightly thrilling but with a sense of danger attached.
Like the flatlanders who began showing up in southern Vermont at about the same time, the coyote is still viewed with suspicion and blamed, by many, for events that need a villain. When coyotes had conclusively established themselves in Vermont, hunters feared they would kill enough deer to significantly reduce the herd. And while there are people who feel a need to sentimentalize “nature” and, hence, claim that coyotes prey only on small animals like mice and rabbits, they do, undeniably, kill deer. And not only young or unhealthy deer. In Dorset, last winter, coyotes killed a sturdy, eight-point buck while it was bedded down.
But, the deer herd is thriving. In fact, it is in better shape than the Vermont deer hunting tradition that is less vital now than it was when there were no coyotes and fewer deer.
Outdoorsmen also worried about what coyotes would do to the populations of fur bearing species. Dave Hicks, whose family has been in the fur trade for generations, tells the story of a trapper who worked the area along the border between New York and Vermont, in the valley of the Battenkill River.
“He did real well with the red fox. Took sixty or more a year. Then the coyotes showed up and he’d be lucky to take four or five red fox in a season. So he made up his mind to get rid of all the coyotes in his territory. He went after them hard and he took a lot of them. But after three or four years, he just gave up. The more he’d trap; the more they’d breed. Once they were here, they were here to stay.”
The persistent survivability of the coyote is, in fact, legendary. In the western states, government programs went to extremes that were almost war-like in order to eradicate the coyote. Trapping, by professionals, was the least of it. Animal carcasses were put out for bait and dosed with cyanide. Coyotes were chased down by helicopters and shot from the air. When the program was, at last, discontinued, there were as many coyotes as ever.
So many, in fact, that some of them struck out, looking for new territory. They moved up into Canada and then kept on moving, first east and then south, until they were well established in the big woods of the Adirondacks. Along the way, some of these animals bred with wolves which explains why what we know as the eastern coyote is so much larger than the western animal that defied the vast effort to exterminate it.
A typical western animal will weigh in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 pounds. The animal I saw that morning on the lower slopes of Dorset Mountain probably went between 45 and 50.
Plenty big enough to take down a deer, then.
But deer predation is not what concerns most people about the presence of coyotes, here in the middle of our semi-rural civilization. What troubles them is the threat coyotes pose to their pets.
When pets, especially house cats, start disappearing-as they routinely do in Vermont-people immediately assume that they have been killed and eaten by coyotes. Which is possible, according to Kim Royer, a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Department of Natural Resources.
“Coyotes are predators and a house cat is about the same size as a cottontail rabbit, a common prey species. So coyotes do, undoubtedly, take some house cats. But so do other predators, such as fishers, owls, bobcats and even bears.”
But the coyote seems, always, to be the prime suspect in any cat disappearance. In many cases, what follows is a call for the coyotes to be “removed.” Which is a euphemism for “trapped.” And since it is not possible to trap a coyote humanely (they are too big), an old-fashioned leg-hold trap must be used.
Trapping a coyote is difficult. Experienced trappers who know how to mask scent and conceal their sets find it challenging. In the lore of trapping, there are countless stories of coyotes that were able to sniff out traps and spring them without getting caught. They did it, according to some of these legends, as a way of taunting the trappers, as though it were a game.
“They’re not that smart,” an experienced trapper, who is a friend, once told me. “Not that much smarter than a red fox. You have to be sure to boil and stain your traps and if you aren’t careful about your scent, you might want to use something to mask it. You can bait ‘em but I just made blind sets when I found a trail that was getting regular traffic. I did all right.
“But here’s the thing. If you are losing pets to a coyote, trapping isn’t going to solve anything.”
He went on to explain that the population of coyotes expands (or contracts) according to the amount of available habitat. Remove one and another will soon take its place. In a year when there is good habitat and abundant food, female coyotes will bear large litters. When food is scarce and habitat is shrinking, they will bear small litters and sometimes not give birth at all. Their population is, in effect, self regulating. They are exceedingly adaptable and, perhaps, nature’s most successful survivors.
Good coyote habitat is abundant in Vermont and, as more pasture goes back to brush and edge-effect woods, even more good habitat is created. More habitat; more coyotes. Also more encounters between pets and coyotes.
So, what is the solution?
There isn’t one. To the extent that they can, people should keep their cats inside at night and close by the rest of the time and hope for the best. It’s a dangerous world for all of us; no reason cats should expect to get a pass. Predators are part of the world and a world without them is a diminished place.
Since there is no “controlling” the coyote population, people have become resigned to their presence. Increasingly, the coyote seems less and less exotic and more and more an accepted part of the scene. But it would be a mistake to assume a familiarity with coyotes and to put out food or habituate them, in any way, to human contact. This is still a formidable and wild animal. There have been a few confirmed reports of coyote threats and attack on humans. One of these, in Cape Bretton, Nova Scotia last year, was fatal to a young woman who was walking in a park when two coyotes went after her. And, recently, there were reports of coyote attacks in the suburbs of New York.
These exceedingly adaptable animals have been seen in Central Park and other metropolitan areas to include Boston and Chicago where the coyote population is estimated to be as many as 2,000 animals.
In Vermont it may be a little over four times that. Most of us will never see one or, if we do, it will be a fleeting look at an animal crossing the road. Or we might catch a glimpse of one, at the edge of a distant farm pasture and wonder, at first, if it isn’t a dog. Most people’s exposure to coyotes will come at night when you can hear them.
The sound is unmistakable and it will stop conversation or whatever it is you are doing. Some people call it “singing,” but, of course, it isn’t. They use the word to avoid calling it “howling,” because that word doesn’t do the sound justice. Hard to think of a word that does. The sound is urgent and primitive and meant to be heard from a long way off and to carry a message.
The obvious message is territorial. We are here and this is our ground. But there must be another message, one thinks. The sound is too rich and complicated and it cuts too deeply to be merely a way of declaring ownership of a plot of ground. The sound is also meant to provoke feelings of awe and, perhaps, fear. It is the call of the predator-the hunter, laying claim to something more than physical territory. In some way, the coyote’s night call is a way of saying “I own you.” The sound gets inside other creatures-human and animal-and reminds us that there are still predators out there that will do what it is they are made to do.
Without them, the world would be marginally safer and a far less interesting place.