The Eastern Coyote in Nova Scotia

by: Barry Sabean

"The coyote is a long, slim, slick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolfskin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of foresakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye and a long sharp face, with a slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry, he is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even when his exposed teeth are pretending a threat the rest of his face is apologizing for it. And he is so homely - so scrawny, ribby, coarse haired and pitiful".- Mark Twain

IMAGE: Winter Photo

IMAGE: Roaming the fields

This contemptuous though not particularly accurate description of the western coyote was written over a century ago. Today many Nova Scotians hold an equally unflattering opinion of our newest wildlife resident, the eastern coyote (Canis latrans). Despite its value as a furbearer, game animal and as a source of pleasure to wildlife enthusiasts, the coyote is the target of considerable ill-feeling and misunderstanding.

Six years ago, NS Conservation reported on the presence and habits of the coyote in Nova Scotia. Since then, as expected, the coyote population has continued to increase and can now be found in all 18 counties of the province.

The $50 bounty in Nova Scotia from November 1982 to June 1986 did little, if anything, to slow their population growth.

The arrival of coyotes in Nova Scotia has led to much speculation as to how such an event could have occurred. Despite rumors to the contrary, their colonization of our province was the inevitable result of a remarkable range expansion which has taken place throughout eastern North America.

Historically restricted to the western prairies, the coyote was a plains animal. As a result of habitat changes in eastern North America (logging and land clearing) and reductions in wolf populations, this adaptable animal appeared in Ontario in 1919, Quebec in 1944 and New Brunswick in 1958. During this same period they colonized all the New England states. By the mid-70s they were well established in New Brunswick, and their arrival in Nova Scotia was inevitable. The first record in Nova Scotia was in 1977. By 1983 they had been reported in Prince Edward Island, and then Newfoundland in 1987. Coyotes have also expanded in other directions and are now found throughout most of North America except the Arctic.

During range expansion, coyotes also underwent some rapid evolutionary changes which have allowed them to adapt to a forest environment, including the pursuit of larger, deer-sized animals. Our eastern coyote is considerably larger than its western counterpart. Its pelt or coat is darker, coarser and less valuable. They also tend to run in larger, more organized packs.

Coyotes are about as big as a medium-sized dog and rage in color from cream to almost black. The most common color is tawny-gray with a black swath along the middle of the back from shoulder to tail. The tail is usually held low. A reddish phase is also common in the Maritimes. Adults tend to weigh about 14 kg (30 lbs.), though adult males may exceed 23 kg (50 lbs.).

The relatively sudden appearance of this powerful predator in Nova Scotia has given rise to fears for human safety, particularly that of small children. Although coyotes are physically capable of harming humans, they have rarely done so. The very few cases on record are associated with coyotes that have lost their fear as a result of being fed by humans. An attack on a child in Cape Breton Highlands National park last summer (1988) was by a young coyote accustomed to handouts. Fortunately the child received only minor injuries.

Coyotes are normally very wary of humans, avoiding contact whenever possible. However, certain precautions are advisable. Make sure no food dis left where coyotes can get it, and report any animals which are acting strangely. As with any wild animal, do not deliberately approach them.

The coyote's predatory habit has brought it into direct competition with man. Actually, coyotes are not exclusively carnivores, but may be classed as dietary opportunists. North American researchers analysing coyote scats and stomach contents have found the remains of field mice, blueberries, strawberries, rabbits, woodchucks, porcupines, corn, apples, insects, garbage, birds, deer and sheep. The last two have caused much of the negative publicity this animal invariably attracts.

Coyote stomach contents examined in Nova Scotia also reveal a varied diet, but the most prominent food items are deer and snowshoe hare. The extent of the coyote's impact on Nova Scotia's deer population is a complex issue. There is no doubt that coyotes are killing considerable numbers of deer - but many of these would most likely have died from other causes, particularly winter stress. Like most other predators, coyotes conserve energy by exploiting easy prey such as old or otherwise weakened deer. They further conserve energy by consuming carrion such as road-killed deer, as well as winter-killed and hunter-killed animals.

In 1986 our deer population was the highest on record. This resulted from a series of mild winters which allowed the deer to increase despite hunting mortality, predation and other factors. The harder winters of 1987 and 1988, combined with very high deer populations, certainly contributed to the decline since 1986. Exactly what role coyotes played, if any, is still uncertain. The Department of Lands and Forests is monitoring deer and coyote populations, including winter tracking of coyotes and spring scat analysis.

Other jurisdictions, particularly the northeastern states, have found that coyotes are not a serious threat to their deer populations. As an example, New York State, despite a healthy population of coyotes, in 1984 reported "...deer populations that are at the highest levels in history". (Some material for this article has been excerpted from the New York Conservationist magazine). The report went on to express concern about overbrowsing and deer malnutrition.

Although concerns have been expressed for populations of other prey species such as snowshoe hare and ruffed grouse, there is no solid evidence to suggest that coyotes can control these populations. In fact, contemporary ecological wisdom asserts the opposite- namely, that the predator does not limit the prey; the prey limits the predator.

The problem of coyotes attacking sheep is much easier to measure. In 1988, 1,016 sheep were reported killed in Nova Scotia by coyotes, and the Nova Scotia government paid out $73,715 as compensation to farmers for those losses. During this period, Lands and Forests predator control staff killed 167 coyotes on affected farms. Sheep farms are now forced to pay closer attention to good husbandry. to reduce or eliminate such losses in the future, proven anti-coyote techniques such as electric fencing and guard dogs (Komodor, Great Pyrenees, etc.) will be necessary.

Pet owners are also concerned. It is apparent that coyotes may regard house cats and small varieties of dogs as suitable prey. These animals should certainly be kept out of the woods for their own safety.

The subject of bounties to control or eradicate coyotes has been a hot topic wherever coyotes occur. Invariably, the reproductive capacity and versatility of the coyote has defeated such programs. The typical female coyotes breeds during her second year and bears an average of 5 to 7 pups in a den during April or May. Both parents care for the young. Only 30 to 50% of those pups will survive their first winter. If the coyote population declines, competition for food and habitat is reduced and reproductive capacity increases. For example, the female may give birth during her first year, the average litter size will increase and the pups' survival rate improves.

Furthermore, with reduced competition for resources, survivors of an eradication program might double their usual 4-year life expectancy (coyotes have been known to live for 19 years in captivity). It has been estimated that in order to overcome this built-in survival mechanism, an eradication program would have to kill over 75%of the coyote population every year for 50 years. In fact, a control program may even increase livestock predation by stimulating females to have larger litters, thus increasing the demand for food during the spring and summer when livestock are most vulnerable.

Despite extensive eradication attempts throughout North America - shooting and chasing with everything from snowmobiles to helicopters, and extensive poisoning campaigns - coyotes have not only held their own but have expanded their range. In Nova Scotia, as elsewhere, coyote populations will be controlled by the amount of available habitat.

Typically, a coyote pair (they often mate for life) will claim and defend a territory of about 50 km2 (20 mi2) in which to hunt and raise their young. This territory will be used by only the one mated pair, but typically it will also support 3-6 young-of-the-year as well as 2 or 3 transients. When the coyote population increases beyond the environment's ability to support it, parasites and density-dependent diseases such as mange and distemper will naturally prune their numbers. colonizing populations may overshoot this carrying capacity for a short time before these natural controls take over.

In the eastern mainland of Nova Scotia we feel the coyote is near, or even temporarily over, habitat saturation. but in the western counties and on Cape Breton Island it is still increasing. When natural population stability is achieved, the province will be the permanent home to approximately 8,000 coyotes.

Although much has been said about the perceived and real problems of the coyotes, few have considered any positive features. Most people would agree that the sound of coyotes howling adds a new dimension to the wildlife experience in Nova Scotia. Many trappers have attempted to catch this wily furbearer and have pronounced it more challenging than all the rest. few hunters, however, have made serious attempts to bag a coyote.

Opportunities for coyote hunting are new and often poorly understood here. The most successful coyote hunters are "predator-callers". Using full camouflage and calls meant to sound like an animal in distress, hunters attempt to lure coyotes within shotgun range. Calling is often done in wooded areas where a 12-gauge shotgun and AAA (0000 buck)shot are most effective. The Department of Lands and Forests is reviewing its legislation to determine whether changes are required to advance this new and growing sport.

Despite the fervent wishes of many Nova Scotians, the coyote is here to stay. even if we tried to eradicate it, the animal's versatility and amazing reproductive powers would make a shambles of the effort. This newest addition to our resident fauna brings both good and bad qualities. we have to accept its presence, take advantage of the recreational and economic opportunities and make reasonable attempts to limit its impact on people.