They are highly territorial, and the drive to strike out and establish turf sends them aggressively into densely inhabited cities and towns. And "because they look so much like dogs, they are actually able to move through areas relatively unnoticed," said Dr. Michael Klemens, director of the Metropolitan Conservation Alliance, an arm of New York's Wildlife Conservation Society that deals with regional wildlife issues.
They have been spotted in New York City in recent years, most recently in late March and early April, when the police cornered and captured one in Central Park. Four years ago, a coyote lived in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, eating spaghetti with meatballs and shrimp lo mein that a neighborhood couple brought.
But feeding coyotes is not necessarily a good idea, since people have sometimes been bitten by them, and some reports say this happens when coyotes are fed. Coyotes also sometimes stalk people from a distance or chase joggers. "I think we'd be foolish" to ignore the possible danger, said Dr. Matthew Gomper, a behavioral ecologist at Columbia University. But he added, "We'd be foolish to overplay the threat."
Another way in which humans have increased the coyote's fortunes is by exterminating wolves, which kept the coyote bottled up, ecologically speaking. The demise of the wolf in most of the contiguous 48 states liberated coyotes in two ways: Deer populations exploded, providing more prey, and coyotes' most important predator disappeared.
In the canid hierarchy of primitive North America, wolves dominated coyotes wherever the species coexisted. Wolves are easily able to kill coyotes, and wolf packs do so whenever they can. This has been vividly demonstrated in Yellowstone National Park, where a reintroduced wolf population, according to Crabtree's studies, soon reduced the coyote population by more than half (though it has recovered somewhat).
In the wild, coyotes consequently exist on the fringes of wolf packs' territories; a trip to the core of wolf turf could bring instant death. The same is true of the next step down the hierarchical ladder: Foxes exist on the fringes of coyote territory. "Foxes are to coyotes as coyotes are to wolves," Gomper said.
Crabtree believes the coyote is resilient "because it co-evolved with a larger competitor that kills it." Having to look out for wolves made coyotes more vigilant and more adept at evading capture.
Crabtree tells the story of a male coyote he once tried to trap in Washington state. He has caught some 300 coyotes in rubber-padded leg-hold traps, put radio collars on them for scientific study, and then released them. But this particular coyote turned in a virtuoso performance in evasion.
As Crabtree tells it, he first encountered the coyote when it was trying to free its mate from the scientist's trap in Washington. For the next four years, it seemed, the coyote taunted him.
"He would do things like dig up my trap and flip it over, unsprung," Crabtree said. "One time he scraped the dirt off and defecated on it without springing it." Another time, when the scientist tried to drop a net on the coyote from a helicopter, it jumped up and tried to bite the helicopter and then hid under sagebrush. "He was one smart guy." And he was never caught. Another win for the Trickster.
"Coyotes think about things," Mason said. "A coyote only needs to be shown something once."
The coyote's evasion skills have frustrated efforts to control its livestock predations by nonlethal means, Mason said. Guard dogs, strobe-light alarm systems, aversion strategies in which lamb meat is laced with substances to make the coyote sick all have fallen short.