Survival of the fittest Coyotes: The government is trying new, controversial methods to control the growing population. But most experts don't think they'll be any more successful than earlier, failed efforts.



SALEM, Ore. - The early American Indians called it God's dog: The watchful eyes, just outside the range of the firelight. The reproachful look cast back over the shoulder as it crept away. The aching cry shot up at the stars.

In humankind's contest with predators for dominion over the Earth, there have been stronger competitors, and larger, and more dangerous ones. But none has been more persistent than the coyote.

The federal government is launching yet another campaign to control the coyote, this time using a new poison-laced sheep collar that provokes dread among environmentalists and doubts among some scientists that it will be any more successful than previous tactics.

Indeed, each cycle of control only seems to beget more coyotes. They have been shot at, trapped, snared, poisoned, clubbed, strangled and electrocuted by the millions. The federal government alone dispatched 82,261 coyotes last year, more than 638,000 since 1990. And yet in the 100 years since livestock owners began the coyote war in the West, the resourceful predator has far surpassed the wolf, the grizzly and the cougar, tripling its numbers and its range.

The unfolding debate over the use of more deadly measures pits sheep-industry losses now approaching $35 million a year against significant scientific evidence that the vendetta against the coyote - so far a clear loss from any conceivable measuring point - may be responsible for increasing its range and speeding up the species' ability to reproduce.

Underlying it all is the fundamental ambivalence with which humankind regards the coyote. The animal has intense intelligence and resourcefulness, doglike playfulness and a monogamous social structure. Yet it evokes primal fear with its efficient ability to kill and its nighttime howl, a bone-chilling combination of yearning and savagery that emanates just beyond the range of the visible.

That the coyote's range has exploded in the past 30 years is evident in reports all over North America, where a species once confined to the high grasses of the Great Plains can be found as far south as Costa Rica and up into the Arctic Circle, in every state except Hawaii.

New England, which had no coyotes a century ago, now has the brawniest in existence. Newly appearing Florida coyotes are snatching turtle eggs along the beaches and plundering watermelon farms. Coyotes have crept into the urban fringes to feast on house cats and raid garbage cans.

To understand the frustration and desperation of ranchers, one need look no further than southwestern Oregon, and a small cluster of sheep ranches on the flanks of the coastal range, and the three-year reign of a small coyote that confounded the best predator-control officers in the state.

Some mornings, rancher John Guynup would go out and find 18 dead lambs strewn across the hillside, some with their throats crushed, others with their stomachs split open and their mothers' milk lapped out. Some weren't eaten at all - they just were dead, as if whatever had gotten in during the night had started savaging and couldn't stop.

Guynup and his neighbors tried the traditional methods: leghold traps, snares, fencing. One man lay out all night with his gun; the next morning two lambs lay dead less than 50 feet away. They swept the countryside with airplanes, posted guard dogs, set poison baits, blasted sirens, turned on floodlights, played tapes of wounded rabbits as lures.

Nearly three years into it, 700 sheep were dead, all with the peculiar teeth marks of the Elk River Coyote. Then, in 1995, down in some swamp land along the river, a federal wildlife agent found a small, cowering coyote in one of his traps. He fired his gun, and it was over.

In recent years, the Environmental Protection Agency has licensed limited use of a new class of poison sheep collars containing Compound 1080. The toxin is so potent that it was outlawed during the Nixon administration, but the collars contain only a small amount of the compound.

Even Oregon, one of the blockhouses of the environmental movement, licensed the collars in February for trial use in Curry County, home of the Elk River Coyote. This is where the battle over the collars is likely to be joined. A growing coalition of organizations say the device sentences the coyote to a miserable demise and threatens to unlock a poison so potent that a single teaspoonful is enough to kill more than 30 people.

Leading the assault with the poison collars is the federal Wildlife Services agency, a little-known arm of the Department of Agriculture. Its job for 66 years has been to ferret out - and usually destroy - the cougars, bears, beavers, birds and coyotes that have in their turn plagued the livestock industry and to some extent the public at large.

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