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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Coyotes, Sharp Shooters, and the Balance of Nature


Last Thursday, February 5th, Rocky Mountain National Park began their new culling program to thin the Park's elk herd. Sharpshooters will be used to thin about 100 animals from the herds this year, which if allowed to overgraze might destroy many of the Park’s aspens and willows.

That same day, in response to safety concerns when a 14-year-old had to fight off a coyote in the Denver metro area, the Greenwood Village City Council passed an ordinance allowing coyotes to be shot. A contractor will be paid $60 per hour, or $200 per day, to cull the habituated coyote population.

Two years ago, a disoriented coyote was found huddling in a Chicago Starbuck’s next to the drink cooler, perhaps the closest thing to a cave he could find. More than ever before, we are being asked to explore what it means to co-exist – with one another, with the land, with the animals.

When the Louis and Clark Expedition first encountered a coyote, they called it the Prairie Wolf. To many Native Americans, Coyote is known as the Trickster. The coyote is both scavenger and hunter, opportunist and predator.


In my essay of seasons on a small Wyoming ranch in the book Ranching West of the 100th Meridian (Island Press, 2002), I wrote these winter entries about coyotes:

JANUARY: “Eighteen below zero when feeding the cows this morning, the air crisp and clear with four inches of fresh snow on the ground. The Bear Lodge appears black and white, snow layered on the branches of the stark oak trees. The cows’ breath rise in vapors. When I feed the horses, their long eyelashes are white with ice. Coyote tracks, traveling fast, try to outrun the cold, but Winter has everywhere marked his territory. Embrace me, or die trying, he seems to say. Finally, he claims Romie, my beloved old mare of thirty years.”

FEBRUARY: “We visit the black Angus ranch of close friends. A.R. shows us a Lakota horse stick he has made from a single-bitted ax handle. Three raptor claws hang, with feathers attached, as decoration. The stick honors the Lakota tradition of honoring their war-horses, while ornately painted skulls speak to the transciency of the flesh. He tells about rescuing a coyote from a trap (not his) that the animal had been dragging on one hind foot. The trap became snagged on a barbed wire fence, painfully tethering the coyote. A shovel kept the coyote’s head pinned down while A.R. freed the animal’s leg. “I had a long talk with that coyote,” he tells us with dry humor while holding the horse stick. “I spun him around five times, then kicked him in the rear and said, ‘Go get the neighbor’s sheep, but don’t let me see your ass back here.”


MARCH: “Snowshoeing today I find a coyote’s den dug into the snowdrift up at the bone yard. The coyote has started an early spring cleaning, kicking winter debris from the den. The entrance is covered with deer hair, bones, teeth, and hide. It is ten below zero; still, the land is my constant companion, my deepest yearning. I am connected to the land in all ways, at all times—to the coyotes who flush white-tails from the forest, to the flick of my horse’s ears as he listens to the coyotes, to the wind that lifts our scent and swirls it among the barren branches of the oaks.”

And then this final winter entry: “It’s night. My son stands on the deck and howls at the coyotes. They howl back. In the morning, a brazen coyote follows the cows and calves in off the hay meadow. He is so brazen he doesn’t run off when he sees Mark, just crouches in the grass and watches. Matt howls again that night, warning him off. We don’t shoot the coyote, but we do claim the calving pasture. The ridges and ponderosas and grasslands we share.”

Now, it is not only the grasslands, but the parks, greenbelts, and watersheds that we humans must learn to share. Ironically, at a time when many of us seek out the wilderness, the wilderness seems to be seeking out us. We are reminded of the delicate balance between predator and prey, between grazer and grass, between the need to co-exist and the perceived need to dominate.



Ask Sister Coyote and she will tell you, perhaps with a glint in her eye, that she is a survivor. She will wait patiently with her Brother the Elk for government budgets to fall victim to the economic crisis. “Sharp shooters laid off,” the headlines might read. "And then what?" we will ask ourselves?

Read Living with Coyotes by Stuart R. Ellins
Read Denver Post article "Greenwood Villages wages war on coyotes"
Read Rocky Mountain News article "4th elk culled in park"

18 comments:

turtlewoman said...

Hello Page, I am excited to have found such an outdoorswoman and nature writer as yourself. I did not know about you before reading Susan Tweit's "Walking NAture Home" blog a few minutes ago and seeing you listed in her links.

We (husband and I) lived in Salida for a few years and loved CO. We are now in the Sonoran Desert of AZ. I teach 4th graders - all ELL -and spend some of my time working on a place-based nature curriculum which includes just spending time either wandering about or sitting quietly outdoors and then journaling (writing and drawing) about feelings and observations. The kids really enjoy this all-to-brief exercise once a week.

In the end, nature will win . . .

Lindy

turtlewoman said...

Hello again, Now I know where I've seen your name - Children and Nature Network. Among the many books I have collected which are either directly or indirectly related to children/nature/place-based ed. Richard Louv's "No Child Left in the Woods" is probably my favorite. I follow the Children and Nature Network web site seeking information and ideas for my own work.

Lindy in AZ

Lara Robinson said...

Co-existing, for sure. On my run this morning I saw a lovely coyote on Davidson Mesa in Louisville. He (or she?) was not aggressive, and was surprised to see me slow from my running pace to stand and watch. He watched me, and seemed to indicate that I should be on my way. He wasnt' interested in getting closer, investigating me. Indeed, he appears to have read the same newspapers and has heard that death is coming to his breathren.

Page Lambert said...

Turtlewoman, how great that you found my blog via Susan Tweit's. She's a wonderful writer and lovely woman. Check out my earlier blog on Susan's newest book, Walking Nature Home. It's a great read. The work you are doing with your 4th graders sounds fabulous - have they read "I'm In Charge of Celebrations" by Byrd
Baylor? It's great inspiration for journaling. Thanks for writing!

Page Lambert said...

Turtlewoman, Yes, I'm a senior associate on the leadership team with Children & Nature Network. Rich Louv is a good friend, as is Cheryl Charles. Keep checking the C&NN website for updates on the 2009 Grassroots Gathering. You'd enjoy it!

Page Lambert said...

Lara, you've got a great blog. And yes, coexisting, mutual respect, understanding the micro within the macro, understanding our place in the world - so important if we are to create a new world. Encounters with the wild, as you had with the coyote on your run, always carry with them a bit of the sacred.

turtlewoman said...

Hi Page, I realized a few hours after hitting the "Send" button that I made a big mistake with the title of Louv's book. I should have written "Last Child in the Woods" instead of "No Child Left in the Woods". I'm afraid I have had the NCLB syndrom so thoroughly imbedded into my brain at school it snuck into this title unawares.

BTW - We co-exist out here in the desert with coyotes, Javelina, rattlesnakes, scorpions, Black Widows, etc., etc. Our 2 dogs have a doggy door into a large fenced in area. At night when the coyotes come through the property there is a regular "Howling Competition" going on outside. One night my husband mentioned the coyote that must be right outside our window - I said, "That's no coyote, that's our Daisy". :-D The rattlesnakes that meander into the yard and the scorpions that make it into the house are not pleasant but one does not live in the middle of the desert without expecting such a coexistence. We learned a long time ago to be ever watchful.

Thanks for the title, "I'm in Charge of Celebrations". We haven't read it yet but we definitely will.

Lindy in the Sonoran Desert of AZ

Rosemary Carstens said...

I find it a real thrill when I get a glimpse of a wild animal in my urban Longmont development. For awhile, I'd quite often see a fox checking out the area early each morning. Then a neighbor ratted her out and she disappeared. It was a loss of a moment of joy for me. On the other hand, I grew up in a rural area where my father and most of the men hunted. My father taught me how disturbing the balance of nature by allowing predators to be eliminated was not good for rabbit or deer, for example. Overpopulation means not enough food and more suffering for that larger group. I've spent a lot of time in Africa where it becomes necessary from time to time in some of the game parks to cull elephants for the good of a healthy population. Going too far in either direction in terms of preservation or elimination has its negative results.

Christine Weeber said...

I appreciate your post, Page. I think what's often missing in situations such as those you highlight (with local elk and coyote) is we make decisions away from the land. You speak to that connection: "...still, the land is my constant companion, my deepest yearning. I am connected to the land in all ways, at all times." What might it look like for management decisions to grow out of that connection?? Perhaps it might take longer to come to a decision, but I imagine our solutions would be more creative and better in the long run.

Melanie Mulhall said...

Page,

Your journal writings have beauty and simplicity in them.

I have been living peacefully with the neighboring coyotes for some years now. I live two short blocks from open space and, for years, have made some of the trails in that open space a part of my run.

I run at 4:00 a.m. While there are but shadows of the life moving about at that time of day, coyote has darted across the trail ahead more than once. Fox travel the park arteries, too, and the occasional raccoon family has been known to waddle across a street.

I have lived happily and peacefully with it all--happy to be among the wild ones at that time of day, and peaceful about my part of the plan.

But not long ago, a woman was attacked by coyotes nearby, as she played fisbe with her dog--at 7:00 a.m. It gave pause. I'm a small woman, under five feet tall. I have wondered if an aggressive coyote (perhaps one fed by misguided humans or one looking for an easy breakfast) might find a small woman an easy target at 4:00 a.m.

I have changed my early morning running route and am not happy to have left the open space trails.

What guidance do you have to offer?

And thanks for the beautiful posts.

Melanie

Page Lambert said...

Rosemary, thanks for sharing a bit about your experiences in Africa and what you've learned there, and from your father, in regards to the balance between predator and prey. That balance, as you know, is linked directly to the health of the ecosystem that supports both predator and prey. And of course, mankind is one of nature's most "successful" predators. Too much so, st this point anyway.

Page Lambert said...

Christine, you're so right - if only our decisions could be made with that sensitivity. I've often wondered what it would be like if our political boundaries were drawn according to watersheds - how different our decisions might be then, too. Thank you for your comments!

Page Lambert said...

Dear Melanie. I'm not sure what guidance I can offer in regards to your running - except to admire your dedication (4:00 AM?) - I live in mountain lion and bear country in the mountains west of Denver. Most of us never hike at dawn, or dusk, out of respect for the predators and their favorite time to hunt. At dusk, the diurnal creatures are heading for their dens and nests, and the nocturnal predators know that. Coyotes, of course, are opportunists, and they are diurnal, I believe. But when they are not preyed upon (by wolves, or man, or bear, or lion), they become quite fearless. The imbalance of predator and prey leads to changes in behavior (such as yours, changing where you run). But perhaps changing when you run might be something to think about.

Art Elser said...

Hello, Page, I volunteer as a naturalist at the Plains Conservation Center in Aurora. We have 1100 acres of near natural prairie. Here's a note I made a couple of days ago.

A few days ago as I walked along a trail at the Plains Center, I saw our pronghorn herd about a third of a mile to the east. I used my binoculars to count 29 of them.

That number has been consistent all winter.

I was admiring how beautiful they looked in the morning sun when I noticed another smaller, darker shape watching the herd. It was a coyote who was hidden behind some mullein stalks between it and the herd.

The herd was alternately watching me and feeding until the coyote moved out from behind the mullein. Then they suddenly switched attention to the coyote who was only 100 yards away.

The coyote walked nonchalantly, as only Wiley Coyote can do, on a diagonal that would take it past the herd, but slowly close the distance.

The coyote got to within 30 yards of the nearest pronghorn. Then, one of the herd, straightened up, as if to look bigger, and walked toward the coyote. I think, judging from its size, that it was a buck who had shed his horns for the season.

Now the coyote got nervous. He alternately looked ahead and back at the buck. I could see its healthy brownish-gray winter coat and the red on his ears and upper neck in the morning sunlight.

The buck had his white rump hairs flared as a warning to the herd and had the mane on the back of his neck flared, like a dog who has just noticed an intruder in his yard. The buck now jogged on stiff legs toward the coyote who picked up its pace. The buck suddenly charged, and the coyote sprinted.

I had alternately watched this action through my binoculars and without them and noticed two other pronghorn, a buck and a doe, trailing the buck who was chasing the coyote. The rest of the herd was alert and watching.

A minute later, when I looked at the scene without my binos, I was surprised to see the entire herd loping along behind the charging buck. It seemed to have taken strength from that buck's actions and the entire herd chased the coyote over the ridge and out of sight. Pronghorns 1 – Coyote 0.

From what I have learned, it is almost impossible for a coyote to catch and kill an adult pronghorn unless it is injured or in failing health. But come June, when the fawns are born and vulnerable, the coyotes will win some of these encounters. That's how nature works to maintain its balance.

Page Lambert said...

Art, what a great story! It's a gift to witness this kind of interaction with wildlife. The Plains Conservation Center in Aurora sounds great. If the group is ever in need of a guest speaker, or would like to host a nature writing workshop, I'd be happy to explore the possibilities with the volunteer coordinator. Thanks for sharing your story!

Art Elser said...

Hi, Page. I'll keep the guest speaker idea in the back of my mind. We have Saturday morning programs which might work. Mary Taylor Young has been doing some writing for PCC, and I've been doing some also. I hope to see you at a CAL meeting or one of the PEG sessions soon.

art

Anonymous said...

Ahh, Page,
Coyote, Trickster, reminder that the Universe has a sense of humor...and the joke is usually on me. Balance...nature, personality, family, work. Your words continue to inspire and comfort. Thank you for continually striving to share your own Truth. love, Virginia in Cheyenne

Page Lambert said...

Hi, Virginia in Cheyenne! Yes, trickster is right - last night the pack out in the horse pasture was baying like a bunch of hounds. Luring in the fox, no doubt! Love to you.