• How the Most Hated Animal in America Outwitted Us All

    The howl of the coyote is America’s “original national anthem,” says Dan Flores, author of Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History. A totemic animal in Native American mythology, the coyote has lived in North America for more than a million years. But since the early 19th-century, when Lewis and Clark first encountered them, coyotes have been subject to a pitiless war of extermination by ranchers and government agencies alike.
    Even today, some 500,000 coyotes are killed each year, many shot to death from small planes and helicopters. Yet the coyote has survived all attempts to eradicate it, spreading from its original territory west of the Rockies to the East Coast, where it has now found a safe, new refuge in cities like Chicago and New York. (Why coyotes thrive in cities.)
    When National Geographic caught up with Flores by phone from his home in New Mexico, he explained how misunderstanding and prejudice have dogged the coyote’s history; how the cartoon character Wile E. Coyotehelped change public attitudes; and why the coyote’s howl plays a unique role in maintaining populations
    One of the most fascinating mechanisms for the coyote’s survival is that it can quickly change its breeding habits according to realities on the ground. Explain how that works.
    The coyote evolved with an adaptive, evolutionarily derived strategy for surviving under persecution. Coyotes evolved alongside larger canids, like wolves, which often persecuted and harassed them and killed their pups. As a result, both jackals and coyotes developed this fission-fusion adaptation, which human beings also have. This enables them to either function as pack predators or as singles and pairs. When they’re persecuted, they tend to abandon the pack strategy and scatter across the landscape in singles and pairs. And the poison campaign was one of the things that kept scattering them across North America.
    One of the other adaptations they have is that, whenever their populations are pressured, their litter sizes go up. The normal size is five to six pups. When their populations are suppressed, their litters get up as high as 12 to 16 pups. You can reduce the numbers of coyotes in a given area by 70 percent but the next summer their population will be back to the original number. They use their howls and yipping to create a kind of census of coyote populations. If their howls are not answered by other packs, it triggers an autogenic response that produces large litters.
    Television became a surprising champion for the coyote—tell us about Wile E. Coyote and what you call “coyote consciousness.”
    I was trying to figure out how American attitudes changed enough toward these animals in the 1960s and early 1970s to persuade Richard Nixon to issue a presidential proclamation that banned the further use of poisonson the public lands of the West. And I realized that pop culture had done a lot toward swaying the way Americans thought about coyotes.
    Starting in the 1960s, Walt Disney produced six pro-coyote films. For a lot of us, the most famous coyote in the world from the 1960s through the 1990s was Wile E. Coyote, the cartoon coyote produced by Warner Brothers Studios. He not only serves as this coyote avatar. He finally gives us a sympathetic coyote character to have in our lives. [Laughs.] That’s why I call it coyote consciousness
    Are coyotes still being killed? And what sort of numbers are we talking about?
    After poisoning was largely brought to an end in the early 1970s, theWildlife Services Agency began to employ a new technology: primarilyaerial gunning. The sheep industry in America used to have 55 to 60 million sheep in the World War II period. Today, they only have about five to six million sheep. But biologists who study this estimate say that, at taxpayer expense, Wildlife Services aerial guns about 80,000 coyotes per year on behalf of the livestock industry.
    In recent years coyotes have discovered what you call “a new refuge … chock full of food and cover where no one ever shot at you.” Tell us about the rise of "urban coyotes" and what you call “coywolves.”
    Coyotes have been living in cities in America for at least a thousand years. But in the early 20th century, as they spread across the Mississippi River into the Midwest, East, and South, they’ve taken up residence in thebiggest cities in the U.S., like Chicago and, increasingly, their new frontier, New York City! It’s a place where people do not trap, poison, or shoot them. Coyotes in rural America usually live on average only about two and a half years. But in cities they’re living to 12 to 13 years old and raising pups so that many more survive. They’re doing very well living among us, dining on the rats and mice that our villages and houses produce in such abundance.
    As they have moved east, they have also encountered two remnant species of American wolf: the red wolves of the South and the Eastern wolves of upper New England and eastern Canada. There are no behavioral barriers to them interbreeding. So, as they’ve interbred with these remnant wolf populations, they’ve created a new predator for modern America, the “coywolf,” which is about 70 percent coyote but also has wolf genes and even the genes of domestic dogs. It’s a very exciting development.
    Project Coyote is one of a number of conservation organizations devoted to bringing back the coyote—tell us about these efforts and why it is important to save what you call an "American avatar."
    Project Coyote, which is based in San Francisco, is trying to get us to understand how we can coexist with these animals and not react to them out of fear or stereotypes: that they have rabies or eat at the back of fast-food restaurants. Coyotes don’t carry rabies and they hardly eat any human food. They are predators of small rodents. And by learning to co-exist with them, we can tap into something that’s ancient to this continent.
    The coyote is our classic totem animal in America. It’s the animal that produced the oldest body of literature in North America in the form of Indian coyote deity stories from 10,000 years ago. To me, the howl of the coyote is our original national anthem.
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