Prince of the Plains

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
As dusk sinks into the deep darkness of night, the sounds of silence are often interrupted by the short, high-pitched barks and yodels of Kansas coyotes on the move.

“It may sound like 20 coyotes in a huge pack, but it’s probably just a few of them,” said Matt Peek, state furbearer biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

“When they get going all at once, the group yip-howl sounds like there’s a whole bunch, but there’s typically not nearly as many as it sounds like.”

The coyote, classified as “Canis Iatrans,” is a member of the dog family. Similar in size and shape to a medium-size collie, it has a round, bushy tail that’s carried straight out below the level of its back, a long tapering nose and wide pointed ears.

Whether seen as a unique species that has survived disease and predation by man or a marauding menace to livestock, the coyote has firmly established its place in the Plains and beyond.

The most common enemies of the coyote are disease and man.

“Humans are definitely the main predator,” Peek said. “By far, humans account for the majority of deaths in any given season through hunting, trapping and road kill. I don’t have a good estimate for how many thousands of coyotes are road-killed out there, but it’s a lot.”

Coyotes can fall prey to heartworms, distemper and rabies, but mange has proven to be a fierce enemy.

Mange is caused by a minute parasitic mite that burrows into the epidermis of the animal’s skin, causes extreme irritation and results in loss of fur.

“As a result, that significantly impacts the ability of those animals to reproduce,” Peek said. “They can survive with it, but they have a difficult time rearing pups when they have mange. It will infect the pups and kill them in the burrow or den.”

But that doesn’t mean that the number of coyotes in Kansas are decreasing because of the ravages of mange.

“There was more mange in the coyotes about 10 to 12 years ago in most of the state,” Peek said.

“There is still some mange throughout the state, but your population in Marion County is fairly healthy. And my guess is the population is probably slightly increased.”

More mange-resistant coyotes take over a territory vacated by a mange-infected animal and then successfully reproduce.

“So over time, the coyotes’ social system will work to reduce mange in the population, and that’s what we’ve seen here in Kansas,” Peek said.

Coyotes appear to be monogamous and usually mate from February through March. They’ll either dig their own den or enlarge a hole made by another animal.

Their litters range from three to seven pups a year, but those numbers can reach into the teens under ideal conditions.

A territory is typically occupied by a dominant male and a dominant female. As the pair’s pups mature, they become members of their parents’ pack until it’s time to leave and establish their own territories.

“A territory varies from state to state,” Peek said. “But in Kansas, eight to 15 square miles is not uncommon.”

The male and female will defend their territory, but a group Peek calls transients exists on the fringes of an established area.

“They’re kind of living in between established territories,” Peek said. “If a dominant animal or the pair is removed by hunting or trapping, then those surrounding transients will move in and compete for that territory themselves.”

In Kansas, a typical coyote meal consists of rodents and rabbits.

“But they’re extremely opportunistic,” Peek said.

“One thing a lot of people don’t know is when seeds and berries are most abundant in the fall, coyotes feed heavily on things like plums and sunflower seeds.

“And they love watermelons and different fruits, like pears and apples. They’ll really go to some unusual measures to get to that stuff.”

And what could be more opportunistic than taking advantage of the multitude of grasshoppers in Kansas?

“I’ve watched a coyote walk along in the morning plucking grasshoppers almost like a bird would-just snatching them,” Peek said.

Although coyotes have been known to prey on chickens and pets in rural areas, Peek said he doesn’t see that as a serious problem in Kansas.

“There’s still enough people out there-at least in the rural areas-who pursue coyotes, and the coyotes have retained their fear of people,” he said.

“In some other states, where there are large suburban areas and smaller percentages of people who pursue them, they have lost that fear, and they do become more of a problem in the cities and urban areas.”

Coyotes have been known to cross-breed with feral dogs and produce a hybrid called a coydog.

“I don’t think it’s very common, but it sure can happen,” Peek said.

“When I was a kid and my dad trapped, I can remember catching a few coyotes that were very unusually colored. We suspected they probably had some dog genetics in them.”

The coyote’s senses of hearing and smell are so well developed that a sudden odor or noise can make it change its path in mid-step, according to information from the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Swift runners, they can reach speeds of 40 mph.

“It has only two weaknesses,” according to the wildlife service.

“It sleeps heavily and looks back while fleeing. It sleeps deeply enough to be closely approached. And it also becomes an easy target when it turns in flight to look back.

“Swift, tough and wily, the coyote is the best challenge a hunter could wish for.”

And they are hunted in Kansas.

There’s no closed season for coyotes-they can be hunted year round.

“In other states, they’re classified as a furbearer or game animal,” Peek said. But in Kansas, they’re classified as non-game.

“So, since the coyote isn’t classified as a furbearer, non-fur harvesters can hunt them. But a fur-harvester’s license is required to trap them.

“We have a much larger group of people who hunt coyotes than any of the furbearer species. Their following is large.”

To hunt them, a Kansas hunting license must be purchased, Peek said.

“We’ve estimated that fur harvesters take about 15,000 coyotes a year. And then another 65,000 or so are taken by Kansas non-fur-harvesting hunting-license holders.”

Hunting has not adversely affected the population of coyotes in Kansas.

“And the poisoning campaigns and shooting campaigns in the past that caused other predators to be eradicated from Kansas-like timber wolves, bears and mountain lions-did not eliminate the coyote because of its biology,” Peek said.

“It’s able to reproduce at such high levels, when resources are abundant, that you simply could not wipe them out, even if you tried.”

Peek gets several calls a year from cattle producers who lose calves to predators.

“Sometimes coyotes do get them, and sometimes it actually turns out to be free-ranging dogs,” he said. “I think that’s fairly common.”

Having dealt with people who would fully persecute the coyote and others who want full-scale protection, Peek says his philosophy lies between the two extremes.

“In my opinion, the coyote doesn’t necessarily deserve either case,” he said.

“At times, what is necessary is management of the species. But, I don’t think we could possibly over-hunt coyotes.”

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