Talk to Floridians who love nature and the outdoors, and you’ll find a wide variety of opinions on most subjects. While they all appreciate the wild, they have very different reasons. Some are ardent environmentalists who believe passive enjoyment is the only ethical choice. Others are passionate hunters who live for the pursuit. Many more fall somewhere in the middle.
But there’s one thing that almost all of them, from the greenest tree-hugger to the reddest Bambi-killer, can agree on: Coyotes are bad. Maybe that needs to be reconsidered.
I readily admit that Sunshine State coyotes have caused some problems. That’s an undeniable truth. It’s going to be hard to persuade ranchers who have lost calves and sheep or retirees who have had their little dogs snatched away that coyotes really aren’t a problem. But if you think about it, these actions are just predators being predatory.
Sure, it’s a bit bolder than we’ve come to expect. However, that’s less surprising when you realize that the coyotes we have are more domesticated than their ancestors. Let’s back up a little and I’ll explain.
First, prehistory: Wild canids (the dog family), including the ancestors of today’s coyotes, roamed Florida for a very long time. The fossil record shows coyotes, or something very close to them, were here in the Pleistocene epoch, better known as the ice age. At this time, Florida’s climate was cooler and drier than it is today — a bit more like the American West is now. Many species we see today (scrub jays, gopher tortoises, prickly pears) are marooned survivors from that time.
When the last ice age ended, Florida got smaller, warmer and a lot wetter. Coyotes, which had lived alongside dire wolves when it was cold, were unable to compete with the similar red wolf. Their range contracted westward. By the time Europeans arrived, there had been no coyotes in Florida for thousands of years. But it’s important to note that most of Florida’s native plants and animals did co-evolve with them.
White men brought livestock, which wild predators found irresistibly delicious and stupid. Naturally, in defense of their own animals and interest, pioneers fought back. They did a bang-up job, and by the early 1900s there were no red wolves left in Florida, and very few red or gray wolves anywhere in the eastern U.S. The animals they had preyed upon were saved!
Nah, that’s not how nature works. When there’s a vacuum, something fills it. In this case, it was coyotes, which began expanding their range eastward. Before, the wolves had prevented such a spread. Now, there weren’t enough to put a damper on their smaller cousins. The remnant wolf population was absorbed through crossbreeding, adding strength to the eastern coyotes’ genetics. Further hybridization with domestic dogs created a new predator: Mostly coyote, but bigger, smarter and more adaptable.
This new almost-but-not-quite coyote has been able to come up with a nifty trick that no other wild canine has managed — it can live where we do. Credit the domestic dog genes for that. However, that’s really the only major change that has occurred since those ice age coyotes roamed Florida. They still fill the same niche, left void by the involuntary exit of the red wolves.
And we ourselves have not changes all that much in the last 150 years. Coyotes are so close to wolves that the biggest difference is the name. We still have a pervasive cultural memory of the big bad wolf, the wolf that huffs and puffs and blows your house in, the wolf that howls at the door, the wolf that sneaks about in sheep’s clothing. We tend to view wolves as skulking, slinking, low-down dirty characters. They’re bad.
But coyotes have more in common with us than you might think. They form complex social hierarchies and tight interpersonal bonds. They value family and loyalty. They watch out for each other. They are intelligent, good at problem-solving, and hard to fool more than once.
Yes, they kill other animals. That puts them at odds with lots of people. The tree-huggers get upset that they have learned to rip the head off gopher tortoises, raid ground-level bird rookeries and dig up sea turtle nests. The hunters get upset that they’re killing the deer, quail and hogs they’ve come to view as a game stock meant for their own use. Pet owners get upset at the prospect of Fluffy or Fifi ending up in a coyote’s jaws.
Here’s the truth, though: The coyotes’ self-reintroduction is helping put nature back into balance. To the tree-huggers, I would point out that no animal — no matter how much you like it — is meant to be without a predator. Predators have an important role: They take out the weak, the sick, the stupid and the unlucky. That leaves the strong, healthy and smart to carry on the species and better it.
To the hunters: I know that you don’t like the idea of competition for “your” game. But it’s not “yours.” The wilderness is not a giant hunting ranch, stocked with animals for you to shoot. It’s a dynamic system with complicated predator-prey relationships. You’ll have to learn to share, but on the plus side, a viable predator population will lead to healthier game stocks.
To the pet owners: I also have cats and small dogs, and I live in an area where coyotes are abundant. I don’t worry about my animals, because they don’t go outside unless they’re leashed and I or my wife is holding the other end. They also don’t go out after dark. Eliminate or at least minimize the risks you subject them to, and your animals will be fine.
To the people who still disagree with me (and I know there are plenty): It doesn’t matter anyway, because Florida’s coyotes are here to stay. It’s open season 365 days a year. Local hunters have shot thousands, and all they’ve done is made the survivors sneakier. Coyotes can sustain their numbers with a 60 percent annual mortality. In other words, you’d have to kill two-thirds of the coyotes every year just to begin making a dent in the population. Ain’t gonna happen. Learn to live with them — you have no choice.