Coyotes & Unintended Consequences

At the moment, I’m down in Atlanta, visiting my family for Thanksgiving. My dad and I were home yesterday when he called me to come look out the front windows — and there was a coyote lounging about across our front yard, in broad day light. He was also clearly injured, and heavily limping; my best guess is he was hungry and desperate enough to be wandering in the open, otherwise he would never have made himself so obvious to see.

We get a fair few foxes and rabbits here, and last summer, we even had a young (and presumably rather lost) black bear wander up about a mile from my house. But that’s the first time I’ve even heard about a coyote showing up this far in town. I know coyotes have become much more prevalent on the east coast in general, though, not just in Georgia, and I got curious about why it seemed like coyotes are suddenly appearing everywhere. From what I found, though, it does not look like anyone’s too sure about the answer.

Essentially, coyotes are an invasive species in most of their modern day territory. Coyotes were unknown east of the Mississippi until the second half of the twentieth century, and it has only been in the past few decades that they have really established a population in the Southeast. Explanations for the expansion pretty much boil down to “changes in habitat caused by humans” and “loss of competition from wolves.”

Despite their amazingly successful take over of North America, it’s not as if coyotes have been allowed to waltz over to the rest of the continent unchallenged. They are the most heavily persecuted carnivore in the U.S., and yet they now range from Los Angeles to Central Park, and from Panama to Alaska. I’m trying to think of another native apex predator that has had its range so dramatically expand as a result of human activity, but they’re the only ones that come to mind.

Coyotes are the primary cause of depredation losses in U.S. agriculture, resulting in around $40 million in damages every year, from killing sheep, goats, and calves. Coyote predation apparently took out 2.3% of the U.S.’s sheep in 1999. Although, proportionally, they kill far more sheep than cows, because there are so many more cows than sheep, most the coyote losses are in the cattle industry.

Coyotes are hard to get rid of, too:

[Coyote removal] costs in Virginia for FY 2002 were $228,000: $85,000 from the state; $22,000 from the VA Sheep Industry Board; and $121,000 from the federal government. (that works out to $578.68 per dead coyote).

Despite these numbers, it appears that coyote management in Virginia has been relatively successful. The program has been described as “fairly effective”:

During fiscal year 2007, the total number of sheep, calves and goats killed by coyotes in Virginia was 249, which represents a significant decrease from 369 killed in the previous fiscal year. Since the program began in 1990, “the number of sheep killed per farm has gone from 17 killed per farm in 1993 down to two killed per farm in 2007,” Fox said.

I don’t know where I’d find the numbers for this, but I wonder if it’s the case that the near extermination of the North American wolf population has, in the long run, caused a far greater net welfare loss than would have occurred had the wolf populations been left intact all along. Coyotes are by far the biggest killers of livestock, and they’re now essentially everywhere — bye bye wolves, hello rising coyote damages. So if it’s really the demise of wolves that lead to the coyote’s expansion, and if leaving the wolf population alone would not simply have resulted in the same amount of depredation but merely change the species responsible for it… Well, that’s a lot of ifs. But I’d be curious to know, in the long run, over a time period of centuries, what the net monetary impact of wildlife management has been in the United States. For coyotes, anyway, wildlife policies made a century ago could be partially responsible for agricultural losses today.

Bonus trivia fact: In Virginia, coyotes are classified as a nuisance and may be killed at anytime, except that if you’re trying to kill a coyote on a Sunday, it is illegal to use a weapon. I guess you’re stuck with using a trap or trying to strangle it with your bare hands.