Prairie Wolf

Following a weekend of discussing the intricacies of growing pecans and eating seafood at another conference, I loaded my bags and headed for home. The conference was held at a fancy resort on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which had just been rebuilt following the devastation that was hurricane Michael. I don’t play golf but a lot of people do and such places tend to have golf courses. This golf course is surrounded by acres of pine trees that look as though God sheared them with an enormous weed whacker. An untold number of tall, straight trunks still standing with their tops snapped off like matchsticks.

               It wasn’t terribly early when I left the hotel and pulled out of the drive on a Sunday morning. The sun was well up and the birds were singing.  Still, there were few people up and milling about. It was a bright, sunny, cold day on the Gulf Coast. As I proceeded down the two-lane blacktop fringed with golf courses and residential houses, I noticed something half running/half loping across the golf course.

               It was long-legged, dog –like, too big for a fox. As our paths drew closer, the familiar image registered in my brain. Coyote. Yes, right here among the golfers, seafood restaurants, tacky tourist shops, and new homes packed too close together. A grey and brown patched, mangy coyote trotted across the road right in front of my truck. I slowed to let it pass and watched. When he reached the other side he turned his head back and, I swear, he looked me in the eye and gave me a sly grin, never breaking stride.

               A coyote was the last thing I expected to see in this place. I spent the rest of the drive home thinking about this animal. There was something about him I couldn’t shake. I’ve seen dozens of them over the years. But always on the farm, skirting through the woods, or crossing a road in the middle of nowhere. Never in this context.

Native American tribes created myths around the coyote to aid in their understanding of the world. He almost always appears in these stories as a clever trickster and some would argue, as a deity. The Nez Perce taught that a monster stalked their territory, gobbling up all the animals. All that is but the coyote. He slipped away from the monster time and again. Finally, the coyote missed his friends and let himself be swallowed up by the monster. Once inside, the coyote chewed out the monster’s heart and released the animals, chopped up the monster and threw its pieces to the winds, where they gave birth to all the people.

               Even after our kind nearly succeeded in wiping wolves off the North American continent, the coyote has managed to eke out an existence in the shadows of an ever-changing and more human-centered landscape. It now calls some of the most densely populated U.S. cities home. Amid our plunder, some suggest coyote populations may be at an all time high. The coyote has the last laugh.

               Lewis and Clark never saw a coyote until they reached the middle of the Missouri River in present day South Dakota in the fall of 1804. Initially, they thought it was some new species of fox. After getting a better look at the animal after one had been shot, they thought it more closely resembled a wolf. Thus, they called this new animal the Prairie Wolf, and throughout the 19th Century, the name stuck.

               Two hundred years ago, coyotes made their living upon the grasslands of the Great Plains and the desert and mountains of the West, feeding on rabbits, mice, and insects. The forests that covered much of the country were the wolf’s domain. As settlers came to claim the forests and wiped out the wolves, the crafty coyote filled the void. Confined to the plains for centuries, the coyote crept into the thinning forest and gradually spread throughout most of the continent, adapting its diet and behavior along the way.

               As they ranged into the Northeastern regions of the continent, coyotes interbred with wolves and as a result, coyotes from that region are now larger than those to the south. The coyote’s spread, of course, set it on a collision course with humans. As our encounters with this species became more common, our own species reacted as we have since time immemorial when we came upon something we didn’t understand. We set about killing them. People assumed that since wolves ate the wild game and livestock, the coyote must do so as well. In 1931 Congress authorized the extermination of coyotes, forming the Eradication Methods Laboratory to carry out this task. They did this with remarkable efficiency, killing around 6.5 million coyotes between 1947-1956.

               When the government finally got around to studying coyotes, they discovered the animals actually ate rodents, rabbits, fruits, vegetables, and carrion but had almost no effect on large animal populations. However, there has been the occasional exception. Large coyotes to the north are currently threatening Canada’s woodland caribou as clear cutting forces the caribou out into less dense cover. And you will never convince most ranchers that coyotes don’t pose a serious threat to their animals.

               As I came into this world in 1971, coyotes were just making their way into my home state of Georgia. I’ve never known this landscape without them. Unlike those in other regions of the continent, it turns out that, coyotes do prey upon deer in the southeastern U.S. This mostly occurs deep within the south’s wooded bottomland and swampland, where coyotes are known to take fawns. But, as anyone driving along the roads of the South can tell you, we have an overabundance of deer, so they are beneficial in that regard. Rats and other rodents still make up the abundance of the coyote’s diet and they help keep populations of these pests in check.

               Still, most people I know around here, view the coyote as a danger or a nuisance. There’s no season for hunting coyotes, which means that, to the majority of folks around here, coyote season is open year ‘round. Now, I’m not saying coyotes won’t take a calf, a lamb, goat, or even a lap dog occasionally. And if you’re the one who loses one of these animals, it can be hard not to hold a grudge. If you’ve had problems in an area, I get it. But I’m not so sure we should wage war upon an entire species everywhere, at all times, for the occasional transgression.

               Its not just the good ole boys of today who have been looking to get rid of the coyote. One of my favorite writers, Mark Twain, in his semi-autobiographical work, “Roughing It”, had some harsh comments for the animal: “The coyote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolfskin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it. And he is so homely! -so scrawny, and ribby, and coarse-haired, and pitiful.”

               Perhaps some of the disdain people have for coyotes, is that they are so much like us. Coyotes easily adapt to make the most of a situation. They are survivors. They’re opportunistic and not above the succumbing to the baseness of their character when the situation allows for it. Most Native American myths portray the coyote as wise and cunning, traits we like to attribute to ourselves, but for which I see little evidence on the whole.

               In many ways the coyote, or rather mother nature, has outsmarted us in our efforts to rid the world of the Prarie Wolf. The coyote, you see, has the remarkable ability to change its breeding habits based on its own oppression. Its not just humans who have made life difficult for the coyote. For millions of years, the coyote evolved alongside their larger wolf relatives, which harrassed the coyote and killed their pups. Like humans, coyotes, can function in packs, as individuals, or in pairs. When persecuted, they often shift from congregating in packs. Its as if they scatter to survive. Every prairie wolf for himself.

               Normally a female coyote has five to six pups in a litter. But, when forced into loner mode, their litters may reach 12-16. By this strategy, though their numbers may be reduced by as much as 70% in an area, the few survivors restore their numbers quickly. Its as if, like a pesticide resistant weed or insect, they develop resistance to whatever may be knocking them off and return with a vengeance.

               One Native American myth surrounding the coyote suggests that the animal sang the world into existence. In a way, for the coyote, this is true regarding its own kind. Sometimes, late in the evening, often in the fall, as I am about to climb down from a deer stand, I can hear the yapping cries of coyotes. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little un-nerving when those cries are nearby. Still, every now and then I like to hear a coyote. As it turns out, they howl and yip in order to take a census of their own populations. If their howls are not answered by those of another pack, their bodies are triggered into loner mode and the litter size goes up.

            Even with his low opinion of the coyote, Mark Twain couldn’t help but find a little admiration for them. At the end of his description of the animal in “Roughing It”, he writes, “..remembering his forlorn aspect and his hard fortune, (we) made shift to wish him the blessed novelty of a long day’s good luck and a limitless larder the morrow.”

The Native Americans had the coyote pegged right. In all of its adaptive strategies, the ragged old animal is quite the trickster, just as the stories of old tell. I believe there’s a lesson here in the coyote. Maybe the coyote is mother nature’s way of telling us not to take ourselves too seriously. Her way of telling us that we are not in control here. That’s what I think that old prairie wolf was telling me with that smile down on the Gulf that morning. That she will always have the last laugh.

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