More than 100 people packed (pun intended) the Shelburne Town Hall on Friday, July 14, to hear about the Eastern coyote.
Although coyote expert Chris Schadler had them howling (again intentional) with laughter, her presentation also had its more somber moments when she discussed attempts to eradicate them.
Although the coyote gospel that Schadler, the New Hampshire representative for Project Coyote, preaches may seem contradictory at first, it’s supported by her years of coyote research and sheep farming.
Schadler said that in the 1970s, shortly after the passage of the Endangered Species Act, she happened to attend a wolf talk and at the end the speaker said, “If anyone has one month they can spend with a wolf pup and socialize it, come up and see me.”
Schadler said that she “levitated” to the front of the room, thinking: “This could be a way for me to express the affinity that I feel for nature.”
Schadler ended up with a pup and started on the path that would become her life’s work.
She and the wolf pup ate, slept and lived together. After the second day, she said, it became “a very long project because they tend to be nocturnal. Me, not that much.”
But her four-decades dance with wolves — and coyotes — had begun.
Ten years before she did her masters work in the Upper Peninsula of Minnesota, wolves had been reintroduced there. The reintroduction didn’t go the way organizers had hoped.
“Within one year, all four of the wolves were dead and three of them … their heads were lying on the steps of the Department of Natural Resources,” said Schadler. “So, the hunting community had spoken very loudly to DNR about how they felt about DNR bringing in wolves.”
“This was a very important thing for me to know that that kind of governmental intrusion doesn’t go very well,” she said.
Ironically, wolves were naturally recolonizing. From her studies she knew that the wolves were coming from Superior National Forest in Minnesota, traveling south and then east through Wisconsin and into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Part of her work involved talking to a lot of hunters in the Upper Peninsula about how they felt about the wolves.
“Every single one of those hunters thought it was the coolest thing ever,” she said.
When she asked them, “Were you one of the people ticked off at DNR?”
They would say, “You bet! I don’t want them stocking somethingBut they thought it was “cool” that wolves were coming back on their own.
Opposed to species reintroduction
From this experience she became very opposed to the reintroduction of wolves, including in Yellowstone, not only because of the public conflict that it usually inspires, but because it is often unnecessary.
The Europeans came to America and began working to get rid of predators. Over the years, in many instances they were largely successful. By 1968, 500,000 gray wolves had been reduced to about 400.
“By the 1900s, it is thought that there may have been as few as 80 to 100 black bear left in New Hampshire,” Schadler said.
Habitat loss was a big contributor to the decline of many species.
“When the Europeans first arrived, we had a lot of original forest — some of it old, some of it young. It was a mosaic forest,” she said. “By 1850, a lot of that original forest had vanished and had become farmland. By 1926, there was almost no original forest left.”
That was when the coyote began to make an appearance.
Schadler referred to this as the law of unintended consequences because, in eradicating the predators that the Europeans found here, they created a vacuum that was filled by the coyote.
“The predator who is here now, we will never get rid of, no matter what,” she said.
When coyotes are killed, it destabilizes the pack and the female pups start to breed earlier.
A pack of coyotes consists of one breeding pair, a mother and a father, who are monogamous. Although it can be larger when there are pups, usually there are just four coyotes per pack.
The pack requires about 3.5 square miles, which it guards against other coyotes. Left to their own, coyotes self-regulate. The majority of females don’t ever breed. Mothers who catch their daughters giving birth to pups conceived with a coyote from outside the pack have been known to kill the pups. “Talk about mother-daughter issues,” Schadler joked.
States in the West that have tried to eradicate coyotes have failed, she said.
“Don’t hunt them, and you’ll have fewer. If you hunt them, you’ll have more,” Schadler said. She’s been saying this for more than 30 years. “That is a hard sell.”
Her years of experience have convinced her that the only option is to learn to live with coyotes.
When people look beyond the fake news about coyotes, they will find an animal that is not nearly the nuisance it’s been portrayed as, and often a good neighbor.
She said all the studies done east of the Mississippi on the impact of coyotes on deer have shown that coyotes don’t have an impact: “Sometimes, they take a deer, but there are more deer around now when there are more coyotes.”
Although coyotes will kill a cat, they are not a huge problem for them: “Great horned owls are the main true predator of cats.”
Sixty percent of the coyote’s diet is rodents. One of the main carriers of Lyme disease is white-footed mice.
“When we see a coyote in a field pouncing on stuff, we say a quiet thank you because maybe what he’s pouncing on is a white-footed mouse,” Schadler said.
Coyotes also take woodchucks that make holes that break the forelegs of horses.
“So many people who have horse farms don’t understand coyotes and will call up Fish and Game, saying send someone out to shoot the very animal they should be thankful they have.”
Guarded by coyotes
Schadler told several stories of farmers who have lived in harmony with coyotes and never had livestock killed, but perhaps most compelling was her own. More than 20 years ago, she bought a farm in New Hampshire and began living her theories about coyote.
She had four dogs, which she walked around the perimeter of her farm twice a day. When she saw coyotes, she threw rocks and chased them with air horns. She put the dogs’ kennel right next to the barn.
In part, Schadler attributed part of the success of her efforts to the dog’s pee and the fact that one of her dogs was an unfixed male. And there was a purely homo sapiens howl from the audience when she added that her husband was also an unfixed male who helped stake out their territory.
Schadler said she worked hard to coyote-proof her farm, sometimes sleeping in the field with her dogs, but after four years she was able to relax a bit.
For 18 years, she never lost a sheep. She believes it’s because coyotes are territorial and they defend their territory against dispersers — problem coyotes that aren’t part of a pack.
“So, coyotes, I think, ended up saving my sheep,” Schadler said.
“If you go on the Vermont Fish and Wildlife website,” she said, “it will tell how useful the coyote is, but they will also allow people to hunt them 365 days a year.”
Vermont is one of 42 states that allow year-around coyote hunting and hunting at night during their breeding season. There is no limit on how many coyotes you kill.
You can’t wipe out coyotes because they reproduce too quickly, she said, so this has given people the license to do “whatever.”
“And whatever isn’t pretty,” Schadler said and illustrated her point with photographs of piles of dead coyotes. “Wildlife is a resource that is in the public trust controlled by Fish and Game agencies. We can’t be afraid to talk about whether it’s morally repugnant to treat an animal in this way; it’s an absolute waste.”