‘And with the wolf in retreat, not only did the coyote population bloom in the American West, in the 1920s the coyote began an unprecedented and historic expansion of its range—eastward across the Mississippi’
Editor’s note: This article earned author Dan Flores his third Western Heritage (Wrangler) Award for outstanding magazine article from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. It originally appeared in the April 2013 Wild West, and marks our sixth Wrangler Award.
Autumn 1804 looms large in the natural history of the American West and, indeed, in the history of Western science. While ascending the Missouri River in what is now Nebraska and South Dakota, American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark described for science most of the diagnostic species that made the West so unique. On August 23, encouraged by President Thomas Jefferson to “collect” wildlife not found back East, the party downed the first bison most of them had ever seen. By September 7 they had bagged their first prairie dogs, or “ground rats,” in Clark’s rather less-flattering description. A week later Clark killed a “Buck Goat of this Countrey…more like the Antilope or Gazelle of Africa than any other Species of Goat.” That was, of course, the pronghorn. Three days later expedition member John Colter shot “a Curious kind of Deer of a Dark Gray Colr…the ears large & long.” Thus did the mule deer come to the notice of science.
The next day, somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Chamberlain, S.D., one more American original emerged from the wilds of the Great Plains, soon to arrest the attention of scientists in Philadelphia, Paris, London and Stockholm. For most of that month the party had reported seeing what they had assumed to be a kind of fox. The more they observed these sleek, beautiful canids, however, the less foxlike they seemed. So on the morning of September 18 Clark finally decided to collect one. With the animal lying in the grass before him, the explorer was mystified by its ambiguity—“about the Sise of a Gray fox,” yet neither a fox nor the gray wolf of Europe and the East. Clark finally decided to call the creature a prairie wolf. He then went on to correct his journal: “What has been taken heretofore for the Fox was those wolves, and no Foxes has been seen.”
This account of the discovery of the American coyote, while common in the biological literature, cannot stand as the creation story for what has become, two centuries later, America’s most widely observed wild predator. Like the other animals Lewis and Clark “discovered,” coyotes had hardly been invisible to the inhabitants of the West over the previous 15,000 years. Nor had they escaped the notice of French traders traversing the Plains since the early 1700s, or Spanish colonists in New Mexico and California, who had even borrowed the Nahautl (Uto-Aztecan) name cóyotl to describe the animal.
As Jefferson’s explorers neither wrote up a scientific description nor proffered a Latin binomial for their 1804 coyote, they did not become its official discoverers even in Western science. That honor fell to Thomas Say, naturalist on Stephen Long’s 1819–20 expedition to the Rockies, who in 1823 officially described the “type specimen” of the prairie wolf from a Nebraska coyote he trapped with a bobcat as bait. His binomial, Canis latrans (“barking dog”), has been the recognized scientific name ever since.
William Clark’s 1804 description of his “prairie wolf” does, however, tantalize us in three particular respects. First, this animal, unlike the gray wolf, was unknown to Anglo Americans. Thus they had no preconceptions about coyotes. Second, Clark and compatriots found the coyote biologically ambiguous. Was it a fox? A wolf? Something else? That ambiguity has since played a role in the coyote’s story. Finally, 19th-century Anglo Americans had to get halfway across the continent, to the Great Plains, before they ever saw a coyote. That becomes most interesting, given the modern story.
That the coyote plays such a significant role in the ancient religions of North America is a testament to how powerfully it captured the human imagination. But to religion and history add the sciences as critical to understanding why we can’t turn our eyes from the coyote. There are sound scientific reasons, readily expressed through religion and history, for why we have subconsciously intuited so much human nature from coyote nature. The coyote, then, is perhaps the best American totem animal of our continental historical experience, past and especially present.
How so? Consider coyote evolution. The coyote as a distinct species is less than 2 million years old and may be as young as 300,000 years. In fact, the coyote’s relative youth is the first of its many similarities with humans. We’re also a young species, theoretically emerging out of an earlier “hominid soup” in Africa some 200,000 years ago. As a family the Canidae are older, evolving in North America 40 million years ago and spreading across the globe about 5 million years ago. Ancestors of the gray wolf (Canis lupus), particularly, became cosmopolitan, eventually colonizing almost the entire planet.
The coyote, however, did not emerge directly from the lineage of the world traveler gray wolf but claims more indigenous, North American roots. The best nursery candidate is the red wolf of the mid-South, whose original habitat stretched from Florida to west Texas and north to the Ohio River. As naturalist E. Raymond Hall wrote of the red wolf, it has a “smaller size and more slender build” than the much more widespread gray wolf. Its nose is sharper and longer than the gray wolf’s, its footpads are smaller, and its “general coloration [is] more tawny.” While the red wolf remained a creature of the forests and swamps of the American South, somehow its descendant, the coyote, became the jackal of the American prairies and deserts. It’s a track similar to the one our ancestors followed to the African savannahs.
The advantages may have been similar for both coyotes and human beings. During the Pleistocene epoch, the extensive savannahs were where most of the action was. In America, elephants, giant bison, wild horses and a diverse bestiary of smaller animals flocked to the Great Plains. Perhaps spawning the smaller, quicker coyote enabled North American canids to compete in a situation with many opportunities but also many larger carnivores like dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, short-faced bears—and, eventually, gray wolves, returning to their evolutionary homeland.
The paleontological record suggests that Pleistocene coyotes had to be especially creative adapters, and that, too, has had consequences. About the time that extreme climate stresses (thought to have been caused by a number of volcanic eruptions on the island of Sumatra some 70,000 years ago) led our ancestors to transform their cultural lives, in what author-scientist Jared Diamond has termed our “great leap forward,” coyotes were acquiring some of the traits that made them unique, resilient and successful in North America.
Like humans, who are intensely social but whom anthropologists describe as having developed a unique kind of social life—“fission-fusion societies”—coyotes became the rare predator to do the same. Fission-fusion adaptability grants unusual flexibility to individuals, who can be either social or solitary, depending on the circumstances. The gray wolf, which specialized as a pack animal to pursue large prey, is not a fission-fusion carnivore. Indeed, that would become a near-fatal flaw in wolves trying to survive in the modern age. Most other predators are either solitary or social, not both.
Humans and coyotes are exceptions. Our successes stem from our plasticity. Coyotes can be solitary hunters, focusing on the kinds of small prey an individual animal can capture. They can also band together as pack animals when prey like deer call for cooperation. Such adaptation made them, like us, opportunists able to thrive in a range of situations. Adaptation enabled coyotes to survive 20th-century America’s war on predators when wolves could not.
This adaptation seemingly traces its origins to the Pleistocene. Coyotes then were distinct from the animal Lewis and Clark encountered on their trek to the Pacific Ocean in 1804. Their skulls and jaws were thicker, their teeth wider, most likely because their initial response to life on the American Plains was to pursue larger prey in packs. This was, unfortunately, a niche gray wolves also occupied. So in the wake of the Pleistocene extinctions of 10,000 years ago, when scores of animal species on the Plains disappeared, competition between gray wolves and coyotes intensified. The genius of the coyote was to back out and switch to the strategy of individual effort. Wolves remained big—5- to 6-foot-long pack hunters weighing 80 to 120 pounds. Coyotes became 3- to 4-foot-long, 30- to 40-pound solitary foragers for small game, even omnivores. Fission-fusion at work.
Through the years Coyotes have developed an array of other traits worth noting. Like domesticated dogs, as well as humans, coyote pups require a lengthy maturing process to learn skills and critical information about the world from their mothers and fathers. The social life of canids is also similar to ours on many levels, even incorporating a census of sorts. Coyotes become mated pairs whose average litter size is 5.7 pups, but they seem to have an autogenic mechanism that allows them to assess the ecological possibilities around them. If they sense plentiful resources they produce larger litters, or vice versa. Their classic yodeling howl, that iconic sound of the starry-skied West heard so often in motion pictures as well as in reality, has many functions, but one is assessing the size of the surrounding coyote population.
American Indians’ ready identification with the social lives of coyotes prompted ubiquitous “Old Man Coyote” traditions in North America. Ten thousand years ago North American Indians could choose from scores of animal candidates for their deity figures. But for those living in the American West, something about the coyote captured their imaginations. As they, too, moved West, American explorers, settlers, government officials and literary figures also found the coyote worthy of special attention—but often with very different ends in mind.
Our evolutionary background as hunters fuels a certain human fascination with other predators, but we long ago recognized them as danger and competition. Given our Old World experiences with wolves, we were suspicious of coyotes from the first. While they seemed too small to arouse fear, they were without doubt competitors, especially with regard to our domestic livestock. Over polite conversation in the churches, saloons and ranch houses of the 19th-century West, no North American predator escaped general excoriation. But for intriguing reasons, coyotes struck everyone as particularly vile. With no ingrained mythology and scant knowledge of the Indian concepts of a coyote deity, we found the species ripe for original interpretation. And for a half-century after 1872 a very unflattering one emerged.
It was Mark Twain’s description of the coyote in his 1872 book Roughing It that perhaps saddled the animal with an infamous reputation that only grew worse with time. “The coyote is a long, slim, sick and sorry looking skeleton,” the satirist wrote, “with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerable bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want.”
Wanting meant becoming a target. Strychnine, first manufactured domestically in the 1830s, had by the 1850s become a regular commodity at Western trading posts. As a result, predator pelts entered the international fur trade that decade. The commercial buffalo harvest of the 1860s–80s created boom conditions for Great Plains canids but also inaugurated the campaign of extermination against them. The real target was the wolf, but strychnine did not discriminate: A single poisoned bison carcass in Kansas yielded 13 wolves, 15 coyotes and 40 skunks. No one knows the exact toll of collateral damage, but naturalist George Bird Grinnell estimated that wolfers killed hundreds of thousands of coyotes on the Great Plains in those years.
Meanwhile, cattlemen and sheepmen were moving their herds and flocks West. Cattle ranchers didn’t get too heated up about coyotes, so long as wolves remained, but sheepmen regarded coyotes as a “parasite on civilization” and pushed for bounties. Most Western states enacted bounties on both wolves and coyotes in the late 19th century. Montana officials went even further, with the deliberate introduction of sarcoptic mange—an early form of biological warfare.
Gone was the Indian deity who created the world. Observing the same animal, Americans saw a sick, despairing, forsaken, miserable creature to which they ascribed traits of both cunning and cruelty. Articles by such popular writer-naturalists as Ernest Ingersoll and Edwin Sabin described coyotes as “contemptible” and “especially perverse.” Their howls were “eerie” and “blood-stilling,” even defiant. Coyotes supposedly lacked “higher morals” and were “cowardly to the last degree.” Exploring ideas for commercial gain from coyotes, a 1920 article in Scientific American asserted that coyotes were not worth the price of the ammunition to shoot them, then added the ultimate insult for the age: The coyote, the writer avowed, was the “original Bolshevik.” These writers presumably missed the implications of both Old Man Coyote and Darwinism’s “animal in the mirror.” At the very least they failed to appreciate a point made by one of their colleagues, who declared, “If we are only a little higher than the dog, we may as well make the dog out to be as fine a fellow as possible.”
Eradication of such an unsavory animal seemed the logical next step, and a century ago everyone was on the bandwagon. Writer-naturalist John Burroughs argued that predators “certainly needed killing.” William Temple Hornaday—the conservationist credited with saving the last bison and who led the charge to replace market hunting with sport hunting—considered “firearms, dogs, traps and strychnine thoroughly legitimate weapons of destruction. For such animals no halfway measures suffice.” Not even John Muir, who found coyotes “beautiful” and “graceful,” came to the defense of predators. With packets of strychnine available in every hardware store in America, it had become almost a patriotic duty to scatter a few and beat back the continent’s wild predator horde.
By the 20th century, however, many Americans believed the extermination of animals like coyotes too big a task for individual effort. It also seemed too important a matter for livestock associations or state bounty programs. Coyotes, in particular, seemed practically impossible even to thin out. No, the extermination of such predators called for experts in mass killing.
If ever there was a poster child for the stereotypical government agency that lingers even when the tides of both science and public opinion threaten to drown it, it was the Bureau of Biological Survey. The bureau’s roots lay in the 1880s; until 1905 its mission was to conduct a nationwide survey of North American flora and fauna. But doing pure science threatened it with extinction every time appropriations votes came up. Western stockmen particularly blamed the federal government’s new public lands system—national forests and national parks—for creating a system of refuges for predators fleeing eradication on the open plains. In its search for an economic mission, the bureau, under director Vernon Bailey, positioned itself as the expert on the “problem of predators.”
The first large congressional appropriations went to the bureau in 1914, to be used “on the national forests and the public domain in destroying wolves, coyotes and other animals injurious to agriculture and animal husbandry.” Within two years the bureau had hired 300 hunters across the West to wage this federally mandated war on predators. It then pressed Congress to allow it also to accept funding from stockmen’s associations and state legislatures. Meanwhile, the bureau’s PR office assured hunters that its project of destroying predators would produce bumper populations of game animals, bringing new allies to the cause.
As poisoning, not shooting, proved the quickest way to kill wolves and coyotes en masse, the bureau built an Eradication Methods Laboratory in Albuquerque to produce strychnine tablets in volume. In 1921 it relocated the lab to Denver, where it would perfect a witches’ brew of ever more efficient and deadly poisons. Hunters first engaged in “pre-baiting”—strewing cubes of fat and meat across the countryside to habituate coyotes to the food source. Poison bait stations went in next. Stanley Young, a field hunter who became director of the bureau in 1921, found that using strychnine it was possible to kill 350 coyotes in just 10 days. At his bait stations, he found every dead coyote frozen in a signature strychnine convulsion, their tails sticking straight out as if they’d been electrocuted.
Señor Coyote’s turn had come. While federal hunters initially concentrated on the wolves so loathed by stock associations, by 1923 wolf populations had diminished such that the average federal hunt seldom tallied more than a single wolf a year. Yet in Colorado the bureau set out 31,255 poison baits in 1923.
Truth be told, the bureau’s arguments for making coyotes public enemy No. 1 may not have been mere propaganda. An ecological revolution was under way across North America. As the bureau had all but eradicated the keystone predator, the gray wolf, the coyote exercised its ancient fission-fusion adaptability, some forming packs to hunt larger prey—including sheep and calves. And with the wolf in retreat, not only did the coyote population bloom in the American West, in the 1920s the coyote began an unprecedented and historic expansion of its range—eastward across the Mississippi River, where it gradually filled the wolf’s vacant niche in the East and South.
With the bureau’s Denver lab cranking out strychnine, its hunters by 1924 had set out 3,567,000 poison baits across the West in what amounted to a scorched-earth policy against coyotes. In that decade the bureau on average poisoned 35,000 coyotes a year. But the coyote, it turned out, was not as easily erased as the wolf, whose pack-based social ties had doomed it. Like Old Man Coyote of Indian tradition, the real coyote seemed impossible to kill off. Even as newspapers such as Denver’s Rocky Mountain News ran stories headlined U.S. AGENTS STALK ‘DESPERADOES’ OF ANIMAL WORLD THRU DESERTS AND OVER MOUNTAIN RANGES OF WEST, somehow, in its clash with the lowly, slinking, immoral coyote, the bureau could not win the war of civilization.
And unexpectedly, coyotes began to attract champions across the nation. At its annual meeting in 1924 the American Society of Mammalogists debated whether predators served essential functions in nature, and whether American policy was tragically wrong in pressing for their eradication. Scientific luminaries such as Joseph Grinnell, E. Raymond Hall, Olaus Murie and Aldo Leopold demonstrated with their field studies that, lacking predators, the natural world often swung precipitously to new and often very fragile paradigms.
The reaction of the bureau to this mission-threatening input from the scientific community was to double down on denials of a role for predators and propose a shocking final solution. “Large predatory mammals, destructive to livestock and to game, no longer have a place in our advancing civilization,” bureau representative E.A. Goldman thundered. Ignoring the accumulating science, in 1928 the bureau offered up its faunal endgame. If Congress would fund the bureau at $10 million for a decade, it would wipe out coyotes—“the archpredator of our time”—once and for all.
The proposed 10-year plan for coyote eradication was the final straw for many scientists and ecologists. One of them, Murie, employed with the bureau as a wildlife biologist since 1920, was known for his conviction that scientists must above all be ethical. Now Goldman tasked him to study coyotes, hoping to buttress the bureau’s position. In his report Murie evaluated “the factions interested in [the] coyote question,” including an emerging group he called “the nature lovers.” Murie argued that the latter faction might actually represent a state of human evolutionary enlightenment. As he put it, “I firmly believe that it is working against the best interests of humanity to…ridicule those who see beauty in a coyote’s howl.”
Regardless, in 1931 Congress passed the Animal Damage Control Act, appropriating $1 million a year for 10 years for the bureau to pursue the eradication of coyotes—the “gangsters of the animal kingdom,” in the media’s phrase. The bureau pursued its coyote mission relentlessly, and well beyond a single decade. World War II prompted explosion of knowledge about chemicals, and in 1946 the bureau offered up thallium(I) sulfate as an improved predacide. Its advantage over strychnine was that poisoned coyotes would not alarm other coyotes; thallium sulfate killed them slowly, often causing their hair to fall out first. The lab rolled out a second new poison, sodium fluoroacetate, or Compound 1080, which brought the bureau closer to its goal, sometimes approaching local coyote extirpation. The bureau pursued a third technique, the “humane coyote getter,” to close the deal. It featured an upright tube capped by a scented cloth coyotes found difficult to resist. When an animal approached, the device fired a mist of sodium cyanide directly into its face.
But wasn’t overconfidence often the downfall of Old Man Coyote’s plans to change the world? The new poisons did kill untold numbers of coyotes, yet the species not only survived, but also expanded its range. Unlike wolves, coyotes are fertile by a year old. Poisoned to scarcity, they simply had larger litters. Employing their fission-fusion adaptability, they then turned to a broader array of prey, particularly the massive rodent population. They readily hunted as loners or pairs, making them harder to wipe out. And without question they took refuge in the huge American public lands, which thanks to the scientists had been off-limits to bureau hunters since 1931.
So the coyote held on, and meanwhile the cultural pendulum began to swing. Rachel Carson’s pivotal 1962 book, Silent Spring, dramatically changed the way many Americans regarded poisons. By then scientists had published sufficient work on the role of predators to change how many people felt about them, too. And in the 1960s and 1970s the science of ecology and the environmental movement created a whole new appreciation for species’ innate right to exist. Surfing this wave, Richard Nixon not only banned the federal use of poisons for predator control in 1972, but also supported the Endangered Species Act of 1973, one of the most important and controversial environmental laws in U.S. history.
A glance over the decades since might lead one to believe little has changed for coyotes in America. That would be a mistake. Like so many policies, coyote control has become a marker of politics and the culture wars. Nixon’s poison ban did not survive the Reagan years. And while the Endangered Species Act protects coyotes from extermination, in 1985 Congress moved Animal Damage Control from the Fish and Wildlife Service to the Department of Agriculture and renamed it Wildlife Services. Thus, on behalf of agriculture, federal coyote control continues, and between 2006 and 2011 Wildlife Services’ hunters culled 512,710 coyotes nationwide.
The coyote’s response to all this pressure has been remarkable. In the 1920s people began spotting the animal in places it had never before inhabited. In 1949 a Wisconsin biologist collected a coyote on the Apostle Islands. Within another two years marginal records of coyotes had cropped up in Indiana, Illinois and 200 miles east of the Great Lakes. With some confusion a 1955 work on mammal distributions noted coyote sightings in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Then this former denizen of the desolate Great Plains did something even more astonishing. Confronted with a continent transformed by humans, it adopted man as a lifestyle. The coyote went urban. Since 1940 most American cities, from Los Angeles to New York, have recorded resident coyotes. Studying this urban coyote phenomenon, biologist Stanley Gehrt was surprised to discover that hundreds of coyotes were roaming the streets and alleyways of Chicago. Indeed, by the early 21st century the most common large wild animal most urban Americans had ever encountered was a coyote.
A final demonstration of the coyote’s smarts and adaptability is the best evidence yet that this American original is truly our totem animal—not just for ancient America but for our age as well. In a striking nod to Lewis and Clark’s puzzlement over the animal’s identity in 1804, coyotes are now mirroring our own multicultural patterns in modern America. Even as we rapidly become a nation of blended ethnicities, coyotes are blending canid populations in the wild. What scientists call a “canis soup” is their version of our “melting pot.” Careful genetic work shows that by interbreeding with remnant gray and red wolves (and assorted dogs), the last 75 to 140 generations of coyotes have thoroughly mixed wild canids in the East. Remnant Eastern gray wolves are now 40 percent coyote—hybrids known as “coywolves.” Red wolves, from which coyotes may have separated a half-million years ago, are now 75 percent coyote.
In the Southwestern United States, where Anglo-Hispanic intermarriage grows by the decade, the vernacular term for the offspring of such unions is, predictably enough, “coyote.” And that, in the way of so much of coyote history, merely confirms the logic: The American original, almost by default, has all along been the best candidate for a North American animal deity that we possess.
Dan Flores divides his time between New Mexico and Montana and teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula. His Coyote America: The Coyote in Continental Culture and History is forthcoming. Suggested for further reading: The Clever Coyote, by Stanley P. Young and Hartley H.T. Jackson; Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West, by Michael J. Robinson; and A Coyote Reader, by William Bright.