Across the river from New Jersey, Pennsylvania politicians are trying to put a bounty on coyotes. Under legislation passed by Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, the state would pay hunters $25 for each coyote killed. Currently, Pennsylvania allows hunters to kill as many coyotes as they wish at any time of the year. Unlike most animals, coyotes are not even afforded protection during the period they rear offspring. Undoubtedly, many puppies are left to die when their parents are killed. In fact, the already lax hunting regulations on Pennsylvania coyotes results in the killing of 40,000 coyotes each year. To put this in perspective, New Jersey shelters only killed 4,643 dogs and 22,067 cats in 2012. Thus, coyotes are already under assault in Pennsylvania even without this law.
Killing Coyotes is Almost Like Killing Dogs
Coyotes and dogs are very closely related. In fact, both animals can interbreed. Most of the behaviors you see in your dog are exhibited by coyotes, such as whining, barking, licking, etc. Coyotes are of course much more elusive and self-sufficient, but otherwise they are quite similar to man’s best friend. If it is morally wrong to shoot stray dogs posing no danger to people, why is a state encouraging the killing of such a similar animal?
Eastern Coyote Origins
The eastern coyote’s arrival in our area is a fascinating story. Prior to the European settlement of North America, the two most important large predators were the eastern wolf and the cougar. Along with Native Americans, these predators kept whitetail deer populations at healthy levels. While scientists debate whether the eastern wolf is a separate species or just a race of gray wolf, the eastern wolf was a smaller and sleeker animal adept at preying on fleet prey. Upon arriving in North America, Europeans hunted and killed eastern wolves and cougars and converted their wooded habitat to farmland. As a result, no large wild cat or dog was left in eastern North America.
During the 20th century, coyotes from the western United States migrated east. Historically, coyote numbers were restricted by gray wolves who occasionally killed coyotes and often displaced them from productive areas. Upon the extinction of the gray wolf over much of the continental United States, coyotes migrated east. Interestingly, coyotes interbred with remnant eastern wolf populations in southeastern Canada and then migrated into the northeast. Additionally, purer coyotes also penetrated the northeast from Ohio. Eastern coyotes with some eastern wolf genes are larger, have more impressive craniodental morphology, and therefore can take larger prey. Nonetheless, eastern coyotes still retain mostly coyote genes based on this study and this study and are therefore a far cry from the large wolves we see on nature documentaries. Typically, eastern coyotes average about 30-40 pounds.
Eastern Coyotes Serve a Vital Service
Eastern coyotes provide an invaluable service in keeping ecosystems healthy. With the elimination of eastern wolves, cougars and Native Americans, whitetail deer numbers exploded. Pennsylvania deer densities approximate 30 deer per square mile today compared to only 8-10 deer per square mile prior to European settlement. Overly abundant deer devastate ecosystems resulting in reduced songbird populations and diversity of plant and animal species. Unnaturally large deer populations also cause more vehicle collisions and damage to homeowners properties. Eastern coyotes are the most significant remaining predator of whitetail deer and killing this predator in droves makes no ecological sense.
Coyotes also may control other overly abundant species due to human alteration of habitats. Canadian geese, which are viewed as a nuisance and a potential source of disease may have their populations limited by coyotes. Additionally, a study of a program eradicating coyotes in a small area found rodent species exploded and the diversity of rodent species declined. Thus, killing coyotes who are playing a vital role in the ecosystem makes no sense.
Eastern Coyotes are Great Neighbors
Eastern coyotes are excellent neighbors and cause few problems. In Pennsylvania, coyotes only take “a few dozen” sheep out of around 100,000 sheep found in the state. This equates to less than 1/10 of 1 percent of all the sheep in the state. Undoubtedly, those numbers would decrease even more if simple steps to protect these sheep were undertaken. While coyotes may kill some outdoor cats and the occasional small dog, no evidence exists this is significant. In fact, Pennsylvania Representative Mike Peifer, who introduced the coyote bounty bill, based the proposed legislation on “anecdotal accounts” of people losing pets to coyotes. Do anecdotal accounts justify the slaughter of 40,000 or more coyotes? I think not.
In reality, eastern coyotes make great efforts to avoid people. The PBS Nature episode, “Meet the Coywolf”, showed coyotes living in suburbia using creative means to avoid people despite living right next to them. For example, coyotes often were active late at night while people slept and even slept near highway entrance and exit ramps during the day where people rarely visited.
Coyote Control and Bounty Program are Counterproductive
Coyote control programs have never been successful and may actually create more problems. Historically, coyote populations were suppressed by gray wolves through occasional killing and displacement from prime habitats. As a result, coyotes developed a tremendous ability to compensate. Arguably, this adaptability increased further after humans killed coyotes on a large scale during the last 150 years.
Coyotes thwart population control programs in numerous way. First, the killed coyotes are often quickly replaced by immigrants from nearby areas. Second, the short-term reduction in coyote density increases food availability to remaining coyotes and results in larger litters and more puppies surviving to adulthood. Coyote control programs decrease the number of older coyotes in groups and force the remaining coyotes to become more bold to obtain food for puppies. Therefore, coyotes may more likely hunt larger animals (such as domestic sheep or deer) and venture into human settlements and cause conflict. Puppies may learn this behavior from their parents creating a culture of more problematic coyotes. Also, coyote control programs cause more young adults in existing packs, which are not breeding, to form new packs and breed. As a result, more coyotes produce puppies which compensates for the increased mortality from hunting/trapping. Additionally, the number of adolescent coyotes in the population increase, who like human teenagers, are more likely to get into trouble. The end result of these coyote control efforts are no change in the coyote population, and possibly an increase, as well as coyotes more likely to cause problems.
Bounties are especially ineffectual. People may claim the bounty even though they killed a coyote from another state. Historically, bounty programs never worked and were largely a waste of money ($700,000 in the case of Pennsylvania’s proposed program). This is why even the pro-hunting Pennsylvania Game Commission fur biologist Tom Hardisky opposes this bill:
“They’ve been proven to not work. At least 50 to 60 years ago we ended the bounty system [in Pennsylvania],” said Hardisky. “With bounties you don’t manage a species, you wipe it out, and there are repercussions on every other species. It’s happened over and over. There’s often fraud and the waste of taxpayer money. There is no science behind wildlife bounties.”
Similarly, the pro-hunting outdoor columnist and former Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Roger Latham expressed similar sentiments:
“According to the many, many surveys and studies made, the payment of bounties on the smaller predators is one of the most inefficient and ineffective methods of all,” wrote Latham. Fraud is synonymous with all bounty systems. Animals are brought in from other states and even other countries and pawned off on untrained officials.”
The reality is coyotes like most large predators regulate their own numbers. Coyote numbers are limited by their prey and also by their own kind through territoriality. If a coyote cannot win control over a territory, it will likely not successfully breed. Thus, coyotes do not need hunting to limit their numbers.
Bounty Nothing More Than a Tool To Appease Lazy Hunters
Despite Pennsylvania Representative Peifer’s claims about pet safety, the real reason for his bill is to appease hunters. Peifer is an avid “outdoorsman” and surely has a huge hunting constituency in the Pocono region he represents. It is far easier for a hunter to blame coyotes for their failures than to get better at their craft. As is typical even with certain minority human populations, coyotes are scapegoated.
The following quote by Peifer shows how misguided this individual is:
“Aside from during the February coyote derbies, nobody goes out hunting for coyotes,” he said. “When a bow hunter sees one, he doesn’t want to shoot it and ruin his chance to take a buck; bear hunters don’t want to spoil the drive by stopping to shoot a coyote. Hunters like to eat what they kill, and you can’t eat coyotes so they don’t shoot them.
“What this [bill] does is incentivize the killing of more coyotes, get hunters to take an interest in hunting this species that has grown out of control.”
Nobody in Pennsylvania kills coyotes? Tell that to the 40,000 individual coyotes slaughtered each year. No, coyote numbers are not out of control. In fact, predator populations are too low as shown by the Pennsylvania deer population totaling 1.5 million or 3 times their normal level. If anything, we need more large predators, such as cougars and eastern wolves, to lower the deer population to a healthy number. Of course, Mr. Peifer does not want to hear about that as it seems he’d prefer Pennsylvania’s wild lands become one large game farm filled with animals he likes (i.e. the ones he like to hunt).
Of course, we should not need to make the ecological arguments. Shooting or trapping an intelligent animal so closely related to man’s best friend for no valid reason is simply morally wrong. We must not only reject the ridiculous bounty, but the notion that killing 40,000 coyotes a year is a good idea. We must move into the 21st century and leave barbaric rituals to the history books.