"I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise."
Historically, cougars, wolves and black bears shared the status of top predator with humans in middle Tennessee. Over the last couple of centuries, we systematically cleared the forests and killed off most large mammal species in the Eastern US. The current population of red wolves in Tennesse stands at 9 individuals in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park descended from animals reintroduced since 1991.
In the latter part of the 20th century, our society decided to start protecting more of these natural resources. Aldo Leopold helped bring environmental consciousness into vogue, Earth Day was created, the Endangered Species Act was passed, bounties on predators were removed, eastern forests began to regrow, and wildlife has been slowly returning to its former range. But nature is dynamic, and things are not returning exactly as they were.
Coyotes (Canis latrans) are members of the dog family, along with domestic dogs, foxes, and wolves. In fact, they are capable of interbreeding with both domestic dogs and wolves. Prior to European colonization, coyotes lived in the western half of the country. Today, while wolf populations are still struggling in our part of the country, the western coyote has steadily made its way east to fill in the role of top predator. With small herbivores abounding on the landscape, a niche exists that coyotes have wandered into. On their way eastward, coyotes likely interbred with wolves, which is why eastern coyotes are larger than western coyotes.
Coyotes are mainly active late evening to early morning. A pair may stay together for life, mating in late winter and digging underground burrows to raise the pups. Their food source is quite variable, but in the wild it consists primarily of small rodents. Though an individual weighs about 30 pounds, sometimes coyotes will work together in groups to hunt big prey such as deer. They'll also scavenge foods ranging from blackberries to apples to birds. My friend once showed me a coyote scat with a pimentoed-olive in it, with the pimento still in the olive.
With their variable diet, they have proved exceedingly adaptable to many habitat types, including cities. Up and down the east coast, cities like Chicago, Boston and New York have made a home for coyotes. And now coyotes are in Nashville, helping to keep the populations of herbivores in check.
Although coyotes are happy to be here, the other resident top predators, ourselves, may not all be overjoyed about the new competition. Coyotes typically avoid people, confining their activity to times when we are asleep or places we don't frequent. Though shy of humans, small dogs and cats wandering around the woods at night are a different matter.
Coyotes are here, and they will continue to be here. If we make responsible choices about our pets, then we should face few troubles. So what does that entail?
Cats. It has long been recommended that cats be kept indoors, especially at night time. Cars, diseases, and dogs are a few of the common mortality sources for outdoor cats besides coyotes. In addition, many ornithologists are concerned with the significant damage cats do to migratory bird populations.
Dogs. If you keep your dog on a leash or by your side, especially at night time, he or she too will be well protected. Adherence to the local leash laws will keep your dog safe from the same cars, diseases, and other animals that threaten cats' safety. Generally, it is only small dogs wandering at night that would be at most risk from coyotes.
These are the choices we have to make. I personally sometime let my cat explore the woods around my house during the day time. Knowing that she is at greater risk, I recognize that she is enjoying her life that much more, and so perhaps it is worth the trade off. After all, she too, like us, and like the coyotes, is a creature willingly participating in the cycle of life.
Understanding how to coexist with the natural world around us, we can continue to appreciate the whole of the ecosystem that we are lucky enough to be a part of.