One early morning in the hills above my house, I watched a coyote mother and her two newborn pups emerge from the thicket. The hills were bursting with springtime, and the animals’ ashen coats stood out against the fresh, dewy grass. The coyote mother stood watchful yet serene, and her pups mischievously tussled in the grass. Although I could have watched them forever, it was only a short moment before they disappeared, diving back into the thick underbrush.
I understood the rarity of this moment — a glimpse of nature surrendering her unseen inner workings — and have cherished the memory of my encounter with these three coyotes in the hills. However, not every interaction with these creatures is as positive as mine was. Recently, there have been a number of coyote attacks on pets in the Belvedere-Tiburon area, and many are concerned that it will be their pets, or their children, that will be harmed in the future. These events are deeply tragic, and a seemingly obvious solution would be relocation or removal to avoid coyote attacks. The reality, however, given that lethal removal methods are ineffective, is that coyotes are here to stay. Coyotes are important pieces of the broader ecosystem, and as urbanization expands into coyotes’ natural habitat, we must find a way to live alongside them.
Coyotes (Canis latrans) play an incredibly important role in the food web, maintaining the health of the entire ecosystem. They are a keystone species, meaning that many ecosystems largely depend on them, and their removal would change the ecosystem drastically. In many ecological webs, coyotes serve as top predators and are crucial in regulating the populations of smaller predators and herbivores. Coyotes prey on species of small predators, or mesopredators, such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes, which helps maintain the biodiversity of the birds, reptiles, and amphibians targeted by mesopredators. Coyotes are opportunistic scavengers, so they also prey on many small herbivores such as hares, gophers, and voles. These small mammals have high reproduction rates, and, without predation from coyotes, can quickly overrun their habitat and deplete food sources. Consequently, coyotes contribute massively to the public health of humans — since a large portion of their diet is made up of rodents, coyotes play an important role in curbing the populations of animals such as rats, which can be deleterious to public health if left unchecked. The importance of coyotes in maintaining the health of the ecosystem, and of us, cannot be understated. Without coyotes, ecosystems suffer.
One of the coyote’s most remarkable features is its adaptability. Coyotes can be found across North America from coast to coast, as far north as Alaska and as far south as Panama. Living in deserts, forests, grasslands, and even urbanized areas, coyotes are able to survive in many environments and have greatly expanded their range over the past 300 years, forming 19 subspecies across North America. Although they are occasionally solitary, coyotes can form pack structures similar to wolves and maintain territories during the breeding season. Packs are led by a breeding pair, who raise litters of 4-7 pups each year.
However, if one or both members of the breeding pair are terminated in an effort to reduce coyote presence in an area, the social structure of the pack unravels and can actually lead to an increase in the local population. Female coyotes outside of the breeding pair will begin to breed more frequently and at younger ages, and the size of their litters will increase to replenish populations, sometimes exponentially inflating the number of coyotes in an area. This is why coyote removal, either lethal or through relocation, often fails. In fact, given the larger litters that follow the removal of individual coyotes, these animals are more likely to come into contact with humans — which they typically avoid — searching for food and occasionally targeting livestock to feed their pups. As their natural habitat decreases and conflict with humans increases, it is important to remember that coyotes in urban areas are on the brink; they are surviving against the odds and in conditions that are not conducive to the instinctual behavior of wild animals. Interactions between humans and coyotes are inevitable, but through education on how to safely manage coyote encounters, we can create a more positive relationship with these resilient creatures.
Coyotes call the hills of California their home just as we do, and with their resilience and adaptability, are sure to remain for many years to come. Our challenge is to learn to live harmoniously alongside them.