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Posts Tagged ‘coyote’

The traditional understanding of coyote evolution is that coyotes are basal wolf-like canids. This understanding comes from the hypothesis that coyotes directly evolved from Canis lepophagus in North America alone. Coyotes look and behave a lot like jackals of the Old World, and because we know that the larger wolf-like canids evolved from jackal-like ones, we just assumed that the coyote was a primitive form.

One problem with this positioning has always bothered me. Jackals tend to have proportionally smaller brains than wolves, but coyotes have proportionally larger brains than wolves. Domestic dogs have evolved smaller brains from wolves, although wolf and dog brain size comparisons aren’t as cut and dry as people think. 

No one thinks of dogs as basal forms of Canis, so it is possible for animals in this lineage to lose brain size, just as it is possible for a primitive lineage of canids known as coyotes to evolve a larger brain.

Please note that my discussion on brain size here isn’t really a discussion about intelligence, because the literature on which form is most intelligent is quite all over the map. Domestic dogs kept in Western countries in the modern way do appear to have social cognitive abilities that virtually all other species lack, while wolves are much better at working with each other to complete tasks.

But coyotes have proportionally larger brains than either wolves or dog do, and in this lineage, larger brains are generally a derived characteristic.

However, the really important data about coyote evolution is the discovery that they shared a common ancestor with gray wolves much more recently than commonly suggested. A genome-comparison study of various North American canids found that the common ancestor of both gray wolves and coyotes lived around 50,000 years ago. Because anatomically modern gray wolves replace the Mosbach wolf in the fossil record between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago, the ancestor of both had to have been a form of gray wolf from Eurasia.

The coyote is thus a jackal that has evolved in parallel out of the gray wolf lineage, which means it is not a primitive canid at all. It likely evolved this jackal -like morphology and behavior because the form of gray wolf that it derives from was unable to compete with the dire wolf, the American lion, the short-faced bear and the machairodonts as a top-level predator. It was forced to evolve a smaller body that could be fed on carrion and small prey.

We know now that there is a big difference in what prey predators target once they exceed 20 kg. Predators that weigh more than that mass target large vertebrates, while those that are smaller than that weight target smaller prey. Although coyotes do cooperatively hunt deer, they primarily feed on rabbits and mice. So by becoming smaller, coyotes were not directly in conflict with dire wolves or the other large predators of Pleistocene North America.

Only through analyzing full genomes of coyotes and gray wolves did we realize that our assumptions about their evolution were wrong. Earlier studies that looked at mitochondrial DNA alone found that coyotes fit within a basal position of the wolf-like canid lineage. However, recent full genome comparison of various wolf-like canids that looked at the role hybridization played in their evolution found something interesting. The lineage that leads to wolves, dogs, and coyotes experienced some introgression from a ghost species that was closely related to the dhole. The authors think that the reason why coyotes turn up so basal in these mitochondrial DNA studies but appear so wolf-like when their full genomes are compared is coyotes have retained a mitochondrial line that comes from that ghost species.

So the generalist coyote is a re-invention out of the gray wolf lineage. It is not basal to the wolf-like canids. It just merely resembles the basal forms in some of their ecology, in some of their behavior, and in their odd mitochondrial inheritance.

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Long-time readers of this blog know that I am quite critical of Dan Flores’s Coyote America, a book that has been hailed as a sort of definitive source for the natural and cultural history of the animal. The good parts are where the author talks about native peoples and their relationship and understanding of the animal. The bad parts are where he misrepresents the molecular research on coyote evolution, most notably where he contends the genetic difference between a gray wolf and a coyote is equivalent to that of humans and orangutans (page 27, if you’re looking for it). I’ll give Flores a pass in that he didn’t do his research for the book until after the coyote, gray wolf, Eastern wolf, and red wolf genome comparisons came out, and found that all these animals were as closely related to each other as humans from different continental origins.

But I don’t know of anyone who thought that coyotes are to wolves what humans are to orangutans. At best, we thought coyotes were to wolves what our species of human was to Neanderthals.

So that was my beginning of great distrust in Flores’s account of how coyotes evolved in North America.

I do remember one part that I thought might have been true, simply because it mirrors the way coyotes moved into the eastern parts of North America. Flores contends that coyotes did not make it into Southern Mexico and Central America until after European colonization took place. The clearing of the tropical forests and the introduction of sheep and goats made all of this possible.

This made sense to me, but then I thought, well, I should look it up.

It turns out that Flores was dead wrong about Southern Mexican and Central American coyote populations. A 2004 paper that looked at the paleontology and sixteenth century accounts of coyotes in the region found that coyotes were in the region before European conquest.

So coyotes have lived in Guatemala and El Salvador long before Europeans felled the forests and turned out sheep and goats. Their recent range expansion into southern Panama may eventually lead to their arrival in Colombia, and they will have the Southern Continent to colonize.

This book gets so many facts wrong about the evolution and natural history of coyotes that I do worry a lot about its impact. It is written as a popular natural history, so it needs to be understood in that vein. However, the author seemed to choose which scientific facts he wanted to present without looking deeper into the fullness of the literature that exists on them.

And as a natural history writer, I find such errors to be problematic, but I always find some way to make sure you know that I am not the final authority on any subject. Because I blog, I can show you my evolution in thought more easily. Books are far more permanent inscriptions. That’s why you will see me hedge about certain subjects where I know more research is being done, such as what the African golden wolf actually is or where dog domestication happened.

The challenge is to make natural history subjects interest and to make your interpretations fit the literature, both of science and of prose.

And yes, it took me a month to read Flores’s coyote book. I had that many problems with it.

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One of my favorite cryptozoology rabbit holes is the story of the “onza,” a supposed late-surviving coursing cougar or “American cheetah.” Onza is Spanish for cheetah, and there have been skinny, long-legged cougars from Mexico that have been claimed as onzas.

One of the earliest indications that such an animal existed in historic times supposedly come from Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of the conquistadors who took over Mexico with Hernan Cortes. While living in relative luxury on his own personal fiefdom in what is now Guatemala, Bernal Diaz wrote an extensive account of his exploits in the taking of”New Spain” from the Aztecs and other Meso-American peoples.

His account of the court of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II (known as Montezuma in the US) also includes an account of the emperor’s menagerie. Advocates for the onza as a late surviving American cheetah point a line the the text where Bernal Diaz discusses the “tygers [jaguars] and lions [cougars], one of which resembles a wolf.”

I don’t know exactly what Bernal Diaz meant by cougar that looked like a wolf, but the really interesting thing is that this is not the full line.

The full line is “tygers [jaguars] and lions [cougars], one of which resembles a wolf, called here Adive. “

“Adive” is a word that entered Spanish through North African Arabic, and it refers to the golden jackal. Well, the African golden wolf as we know it now.

Bernal Diaz is talking about wolf-like creatures called “adives” in New Spain, and although no one can make sense of his lion that looked like a wolf description. In an aside, he actually made mention of the coyote, and this must be the earliest mention of coyotes in a Western text.

My guess is Bernal Diaz was talking about a jaguarundi, which does look like an holy hybrid of a wolf and a cougar. This animal is sometimes called in Onza in part of Latin America, and it is also part and parcel of the late surviving American cheetah legend.

He could have also seen a Mexican wolf, and for whatever reason, he didn’t think of it as a wolf like existed in Spain. Instead, he may have classified it with the cougar, for it seemed so exotic to be a true wolf.

Bernal Diaz would have known these adives from his life in Guatemala, and he would have seen them in the Yucatan and during his adventures in Central Mexico.

Bernal Diaz wrote his account in 1576, when he was in his 80s. This account, even though it is just an aside, is the first mention of a coyote, and it predates the most famous early account of the “Indian fox” in Francisco Hernandez de Toledo’s Plantas y Animales de la Nueva Espana . Hernandez de Toledo was on his scientific expedition for the King of Spain at roughly the same time that Bernal Diaz mentioned the adive, but his account of the animal was not published until 1651, when he had been dead for decades.

So I would argue that Bernal Diaz was the first person to mention a coyote in Western literature, even if almost everyone missed his account as a mere weird word in an account about cougars and jaguars.

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We spend a lot of time debating about how wolves became dogs. A huge debate exists in the archaeological and paleontological literature about how one can determine whether the remains of a canid represent a wolf, a dog, or a transitional form between wolves and dogs. This debate is why the oldest dog remains are dated to around 14,000 years ago and come from the Bonn-Oberkassel site. Anything older than that, a big debate exists among experts about what can be used to define a wolf, a dog, or a transitional form.

But this debate does not exist solely in relatively recent transition between wolves and dogs. The entire evolution of Canis lupus is a hotly contested and often contradictory, depending upon which source one reads and whether one is looking a source that relies upon paleontological and morphological analysis or one that looks at the molecular evolution of the species.

It is well-accepted in European paleontology that Canis lupus evolved from Canis mosbachensis. Mark Derr paid particular attention to this evolution in his How the Dog Became the Dog. He posits that the extinction of the large hunting dog, Xenocyon lycaonoides, created an ecological niche that could be filled by the Mosbach wolf evolving into the gray wolf.

Yes, the Mosbach wolf was smaller than the modern gray wolf. Individuals from Northwestern Europe were mostly about the size of a modern Indian wolf or a “red wolf.” Indeed, the similarities between some of these mosbachensis wolves and red wolves are the best evidence for a unique red wolf species, for one can argue that red wolves are just a relict form of the Mosbach wolf that held on in Eastern North America. Of course, the genetic data do not agree with this assertion, but it is an interesting idea nonetheless.

My reading is that the Mosbach wolf gave rise to Canis lupus in Eurasia between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago. The coyote, though often posited as a primitive Canis, is actually derived from a divergent form of Canis lupus that got marooned in the American Southwest some 50,000 years ago and evolved to fit a jackal-like niche on a continent already dominated by dire wolves.

The Mosbach wolf disappeared from the fossil record around 300,000 years ago, but there is always a debate as to the possibility that it held on longer. The red wolf and Indian wolf are certainly possibilities for its continued existence today, but as we’ve looked at more wolf genomes both of those don’t come out so distinctive. Every study that I’ve seen that uses Indian wolf genomes finds that they are divergent Canis lupus, and the red wolf is a cross between wolves that are of that coyote type and relict Southeastern gray wolves from a later invasion of the continent. I do think there is pretty good historical data that some smaller wolves that we would define as coyotes lived in the Eastern states at the time of contact, particularly the small brown wolf of Pennsylvania mentioned by Shoemaker and the small “wolues” of Jamestown mentioned by John Smith. My guess is that no one really took stock of what they were killing when they killed off the wolves of Eastern states. It is very possible that coyote-like wolves were killed off in great numbers along with the big ones, and later on, coyotes from the plains came East, crossing with wolves and even relict original Eastern coyotes to form the modern Eastern coyote. The red wolf and the larger Eastern coyote are thus recreations of the Mosbach wolf that have happened in modern times.

In Europe, one potential late surviving Mosbach wolf was thought to have been found in Apulia, Italy, at the Grotta Romanelli site. Wolf remains have been found in the cave that date to between 40,000 and 69,000 years ago and they were often described as belonging to a late surviving Mosbach wolf. A recent morphological analysis revealed that these remains were of a peculiar form of Canis lupus that lived in that part of Southern Italy, and they were not of any kind of Mosbach wolf.

However, the Mosbach wolf is particularly intriguing. Occasionally, it has been posited as a direct ancestor of the domestic dog, but because we don’t have an overlap between the signs of the earliest dog domestication and the existence of Canis mosbachensis in the fossil record, one should be very careful in making such an assertion.

This same caveat should be placed when one sees Canis variabilis posited as dog ancestor. For one thing, there is no such thing as Canis variabilis. Instead, all the specimens listed as this species that come from the Zhoukoudian site in China have now been reassigned to Canis mosbachensis. This reassignment posits them as Canis mosbachensis variabilis, so whenever one encounters that “Canis variabilis” in a paper, just remember that they are discussing a particular East Asian form of the Mosbach wolf.

From my own speculative meta-analysis, it seems that the Mosbach wolf is ancestral to the entire wolf/dog/coyote species complex, which may include the African golden wolf, and the Eurasian golden jackal. A genome comparison study that included dogs, wolves, and one Israeli Eurasian golden jackal found that the divergence between the golden jackal and the dog and wolf species happened just before the anatomically modern Canis lupus replaced Canis mosbachensis in the fossil record. The Eurasian golden jackal could potentially be derived from a diminutive form of Canis mosbachensis that moved toward a more generalist scavenger form.

We also have some evidence of small Mosbach wolves in Europe that could have potentially gone in the direction of the golden jackal. This specimen was found not far from the Grotta Romanelli wolf that were found to be anatomically modern and not Mosbach wolves. It was found at the Contrada Monticelli site in Apulia. It was unusual in that it was quite a bit smaller than the Mosbach wolves found in other parts of Europe, and the authors found that Mosbach wolves were as morphologically variable as modern wolves are.

In North Africa, we also have a recent discovery of a canid that was much like the Mosbach wolf. The authors thought it was a bit different from the Eurasian form, and they decided to call this species Canis othmanii. This African wolf-like canid was found at a site in Tunisia and dates to the Middle Pleistocene, and it could potentially be the basal gray wolf that hybridized with the Ethiopian wolf to make the African golden wolf. More work needs to be done on this specimen, for it very well could wind up like Canis variabilis, a regionally distinct form of the Mosbach wolf.

The really fuzzy part about Canis mosbachensis isn’t that it is the ancestor of the gray wolf. The educated speculations I make about its relationship to the golden jackal and the golden wolf could be debated, and we need lots more data to figure out if I am right or not.

The really fuzzy part is what came before the Mosbach wolf. Most scholars think that Etruscan wolf (Canis etruscus), which makes an appearance in the fossil record around 2 million years ago, is the ancestor of the Mosbach wolf. For years, there was a debate about whether the Mosbach wolf was a chrono-subspecies of the Etruscan wolf or a chrono-subspecies of the gray wolf. All these suggestions would be technically true, simply because we could regard the Etruscan wolf-Mosbach wolf-gray wolf as a species that lasted and evolved over this time period.

However, a bit of a debate now exists as to whether the Etruscan wolf is the ancestor of the Mosbach wolf. An extensive morphological analysis of Etruscan wolf remains and those of another Canis species called Canis arnensis, which compared both to the modern black-backed jackal, the gray wolf, the golden jackal, and the golden wolf, found that our previous delineation between arnensis as being jackal-like and etruscus as being wolf-like were over-simplifications. Some characters of arnensis are much more like modern gray wolves than etruscus is, and it is possible that arnesis gave rise to the Mosbach wolf. Still, the bulk of scholarship thinks that the Etruscan wolf is the ancestor of the Mosbach wolf.

However, because the Mosbach wolf was not included in the analysis, it might be difficult to make such a conclusion. However, maybe the Etruscan wolf or something like it is the ancestor of the Ethiopian wolf. The ancestral Ethiopian wolf must have had an extensive range in Northern Africa for it to have hybridized with Canis mosbachensis, Canis othmanii, or a basal modern gray wolf to form the African golden wolf.

I have focused most of this post on the origins of gray wolves in the Old World, but the first Canis species to evolve were found in North America. Canis lepophagus first appeared in the fossil record 5 million years ago. It was very similar to a coyote or a Canis arnensis of the Old World. This is the part of the story where the molecular data has largely shaken up what we used to believe about coyotes. Lepophagus is thought to have evolved into the larger Edward’s wolf (Canis edwardii), which is sometimes called Canis priscolatrans. These animals might have been the same species or very closely related to the Etruscan wolf. The modern coyote is thought to have derived from edwardii/priscolatrans/estrucus 1 million years ago, but genome-wide comparisons put the existence of most recent common ancestor of gray wolves and coyotes at less than 51,000 years ago.

The dire wolf derived from Armbruster’s wolf (Canis armbrusteri). Armbruster’s wolf derived from Canis edwardii/priscolatrans/etruscus 1.8 million years ago. The dire wolf then evolved from that species 125,000 years ago, which means the dire wolf’s most recent common ancestor with modern wolves and the coyote may have been as far back as 2 or even 3 million years ago.

This analysis is still being worked out. The molecular data is constantly throwing wrenches into the machinery of paleontology, especially the paleontology of canids. The most successful extant canid lineage are full of parallel evolution and phenotypic plasticity, and in this way, it has become quite a challenge to sort out the evolutionary history of these species. At various times, large wolf-like forms have evolved as have smaller coyote or jackal-like forms.

The story of Canis starts with a coyote-like lepophagus, but right now, its likely niche is adopted by the modern coyote, which also very similar to it. But the molecular data suggest that the coyote evolved to adopt this similar niche from a larger Eurasian gray wolf and that it did not directly descend from lepophagus over 5 million years in only North America. Instead, it evolved into wolves that wandered into Eurasia, becoming the Mosbach wolf and then anatomically modern gray wolf. Some of these wolves wandered back into North America and became generalist scavengers in the land of the dire wolf.

Very similar stories likely are lost to us, but we must understand that the history of wolves is not just about getting bigger and developing pack-hunting behavior. That is one part of the story, but another part is about evolving to fit niches, which sometimes means evolving a smaller size and more generalist diet.

Some of my ideas here are very speculative, but I think they are nested in my reading of the available literature. Do not assume that I have the final story of how these creatures evolved, but just understand that the molecular side is so rarely considered in paleontology literature that it is almost like we’re reading evolutionary history of two different lineages.

More work must be done to formulate a synthesis between these two disciplines. Otherwise, there will be continued conflict, and the one using an older methodology and often working with much more incomplete data-set will fall by the wayside. And that is not the one using full genomes.

If we know what problems exist using morphological studies on extant and recently extinct canids, it is very likely that we’re missing important data on many extinct species, one for which there is no DNA to test.

Still, paleontology has much to tell us about the way early wolves lived. It can tell us much about how the ecosystems were and why wolves evolved in the way they did. But its methodologies often miss relationships between extant forms and miss the tendency toward parallel evolution.

I tried for about two years to watch Joe Rogan’s interview with Dan Flores, who wrote a book on coyotes that I think is quite full of misunderstandings about canid taxonomy. When Rogan questioned him about the papers that show a recent origin for the red wolf, Flores pretty much just dismissed those papers because they didn’t look at fossil.

That’s not how it works. Within canids, we know that parallel evolution is a big thing, and it is very possible that coyote-like and red wolf-like canids have evolved more than once on this continent. Indeed, a careful reading of the paleontology and molecular data strongly suggests that this is the case.

In fact, it has always been the case with these wolf-like canids. Big ones evolved from small ones, but sometimes, the big ones become small, because it is a better fit for survival.

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plott hound

He bought the young Plott and named her Crockett, and he trained to hunt rac oons and gray foxes in the overgrown coverts that stretched out behind his house.

He was a school administrator by trade, but the demands of the job meant he could slip in and out when the cold nights of November came slipping down upon the hills.

He had run Walkers on red foxes as a boy, and he’d always had a beagle or two, but when his last beagle passed on to that Valhalla of cottontail chases, he went looking for a big hound to run.

When he saw the ad in the farm classified, he rushed off and plunked down the $250 for a little long-eared brindle pup and began the process of turning her into a first-rate varmint dog.

Crockett came from a long-line of hard driving bear dogs, but in these hills, the bears rarely graced the overgrown woods, and the law strictly forbade anyone from running bears with hounds.

So Crockett’s education was to run the raccoon and the gray fox until they took to the trees, where the man would come and blast them out of the trees with his .17 HMR.

Their fur would be sold at auction in the coming spring. It would sell for a pittance, but man and dog were united in their common cause, the cause of pursuit, the cause of the hunt.

She learned that tracking deer would make her neck burn with electricity, and she learned the same when she struck off after rabbits.

She learned that the gray fox scent and that of the raccoon were the great ones to follow, and like all proper trail hounds, she let loose the cries of the ecstasy of the pursuit while her nose breathed in the spoor and enlivened her very being.

One clear night in early December, Crockett was let loose from her dog yard, and she began casting her way through the coverts, casting her nose over the brush and briers and mud and rocks for the scent of the brier fox and the ring-tail.

She caught scent of a gray fox and began a baying run down its track. She was hot-blooded and alive, as only a scenthound can be when it’s on the trail of its quarry.

The fox heard her the banshee baying into the night and began his escape, running long hand hard down little ‘coon trails that course their way through heavy thickets of autumn olive. But the hound knew her trade, her passion, and she kept coming, screaming hard on the fox’s long tail.

So the fox changed his tactics and ran hard until he hit the big sycamore where he would sometimes spend long afternoons sleeping out out the day. Night was his time to prowl, and the tree was the perfect shelter until that sweet veil of darkness surrounded the land. It was along a remote little creek, where the thorny thickets drew in close, and no idle man would be willing to approach it, and any many with gumption would make enough noise on his approach to alert the fox’s ears and black quivering nose.

To get to the tree the fox began to double back on his track, trying to throw the hound’s questing run, and for a few minutes, he succeeded, and he used those few minutes to bolt fort the sycamore.

He raced up the tree as if he were a barn cat and not particularly canine. The gray fox is unique among North American canids in that it can climb trees, readily does so, especially when it wants to escape a predator.

The fox rested his form hard against a big branch and waited for the coming dog.  Crockett hit the tree hard about five minutes later, and she began singing the song of a hound that has finally treed. The man would be there soon,  the strap on his rifle would creak along with the cadence of his boots in the leaf litter. It would be the orchestra of death, the baying treed hound and the creaking rifle strap and the shuffling of boots, and then would come the loud boom. The fox would fall from the tree, and the hound would sent casting the woods once again.

But this time, another creature heard the whole song. It was a bitch coyote. 31 pounds of snapping, snarling fury, she had come to work the creek for any hidden vole or deer mouse trails, and now, she heard this other coyote screaming like it owned the place. It more than piqued her interest. It brought up her territorial spirit, and she came rushing down toward the sycamore, incensed at the interloper.

Crockett had never met the coyote before.  She’d smelled her track a time or two, and she sometimes smelled coyote’s mate’s tracks a well, but they mostly stayed far from the gray fox and raccoon haunts, preferring to stay so far from man’s dwellings that they would never meet a dog.

The coyote came with jaws open in a gape threat, and the hound turned from the tree.  She raised her tail and all her hackles. She let loose a few growling barks.

But the coyote tucked her tail between her legs and hackled up and began her intimidating circling of the dog.  A tail between the legs and jaws wide open are the war stance of the coyote, and a dog with its tail up and crooked forward is making its war stance.

And so the two stared each other down beneath sycamore, but this would not be solved without a fight.

31 pounds of coyote and 52 pounds of Plott hound collided with each other in a fury of fangs and fur. The coyote was an experienced scrapper, and her long canines cut deep into the Plott ears.

But Crockett came from a line of bear dogs. In her blood, coursed the veins of the German forester’s hound remodified over the centuries in the Appalachians into the gritty bear hound. Rumors and lore persisted that the Plotts had a bit of wolf crossed into them, and if it were true, then it would just add a bit more grit and fighting spirit to the hound.

Two or three good bites from the coyote was all it took to release the fighting fury of the big game hound. Her greater mass and thick muscle were more than the coyote bitch had reckon for.

And soon the coyote was down. The Plott’s jaws were on her neck, pumping hard for the kill, and the coyote slipped into death beneath the sycamore.

The gray fox stared down at the hole scene. He didn’t move, for he had not expected such a thing to develop.

The man began calling for Crockett as he came down into the creekbed.  He had heard the wild fighting the blackness of night, and he feared what might have happened to her.

Crockett ran to her master’s voice. He knelt to stroke her and talk the sweet lovings of a man greeting his dog. He was shocked to find the blood dripping from her right ear.

It was a big gash, and he wondered what could have done such a thing. Almost as if she read his mind, Crockett dashed off towards the sycamore. The man followed, casting his head lamp before him on its highest setting.

Its beams finally cast down into the thicket that led to the sycamore and then caught the Plott hound eye-shine. He plodded through the thorns to where he saw the dog standing, and then came upon her standing with her tail wagging.

The dead coyote bitch lay below her, and at first the man had no idea he was looking at. Had his dog killed a husky or a Norwegian elkhound. But one good look at narrow muzzle and long fangs told him otherwise. Crockett had killed a coyote.

He had never heard of a dog doing such a thing before, but his gritty little bear dog had done it.

He leashed Crockett and stroked her bloody ears. He told her what a good girl she was, and then he grabbed the coyote up by the hind legs with his other hand and began working his way back home.

He had bragging rights and a good dog, one that had taken out a wild bitch in the woods.

And as man and hound and quarry left the scene, the gray fox watched from his treetop vantage. He waited and waited until the hound and human feet no longer made a scratch on the leaves.

He shimmied down the tree, smelled the coyote and dog blood. All his hackles were raised at that hot scent, and his black tail hackle stripe rose up like a spiky flag.

If he could reason, he would have bet his life of that hard coyote bitch coming hard to fight the dog, but he’d spent much of his life keeping as far from their jaws as much as the hunter’s gun.

The night haunt of the gray fox was not ruined now, and after sniffing the blood for a bit, he slunk down the trail that he knew would lead him to a quiet lane of tram road where many cottontails sat out on cold December nights.

And so the hound and man left their mark of savagery upon the land.  Organic beings made of nature, but now wholly contrived into the modern era of varmint and raccoon hunts. they were but reenactors of the old hunter-gatherer men and their wolfish dogs that went questing out for big game for survival. Two beasts of prey working in confederacy, man and what became dogs were the apex predators of yore.

But modern man has long since abandoned this life, but a few souls participate in the hunt of game and use their dogs and perhaps feel that old partnership rekindled in the darkness. Yes, it is ersatz, but it echoes pretty loudly in their psyches.

And it is the echoes that drive them and their hounds into the cold crisp darkness in search of game.

And so the hound will go into the brush in search of quarry and man will be following after.

 

 

 

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I love Kentucky Afield, but I have some problems with the terminology in this clip.

The hunter in this video calls the coyote an invasive species in part because it killed some cats.

Now, cats clearly are an actual invasive species. They exist at much higher densities than any native mesopredators, and the truth is that anything that keeps cats numbers down or keeps them scared out of their minds to leave the house is a good thing for many small birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

The genus Felis is not native to any place in the Americas. Had Europeans never come over here, we would have our native cat species, which would exist at numbers that were controlled through competition with other native predators and the fluctuating numbers of prey species.

If any animal that has been introduced since the time of colonization has caused ecological chaos, it is the domestic cat.

This is what ecologists say, but cats have good publicity.  They have a fan club. I can’t say that I’m in it, but I can see why some people like them. They are like a mentally deficient dog that doesn’t require walks or much training, but they are far more intelligent than guinea pigs and better company than Syrian hamsters.

The same cannot be said for the coyote. Those of us who live outside the proposed original range for coyotes tend to think of them as a Western species that came into the East, but the truth is we have fossil evidence of  Pleistocene coyotes in the East, including in West Virginia.

We also have accounts of anomalous wolves. For example, John Smith described the “wolues” around Jamestown as not being much larger than English foxes. It is usually suggested that these Jamestown wolves were red wolves. Ignoring the real problems about what red wolves actually are, coyotes fit the description far better than anything we’ve ever called a red wolf.

Henry Wharton Shoemaker also wrote of a small brown wolf that was common in the Susquehanna Valley, which he contended was exactly the same thing as the coyote.

It is very possible that coyotes existed in the East but in far smaller numbers than they do now. The wolf hunters and fur trappers who came into the continent took as many wolves as they could, and they didn’t take great lengths to catalog what they were killing. They just killed them, and they either got their bounty or sold the hides.  And many Native American dogs went with them.

So I think it is possible that there were some coyotes in East, but their big range expansion didn’t happen until the extirpation of larger wolves.

Further, the entire genus Canis has its origins in this continent.  The earliest forms of the genus was Canis evolved in North America 6 million years ago, though they were restricted to the Southwest and Northern Mexico, but coyotes and coyote-like canids were found throughout what became the United States during the Pleistocene.

The genus Felis didn’t appear here until permanent European colonization and settlement.

So this idea that you’re killing the coyote as the “invasive species” to protect the cat is a total perversion of the ecological concept.

It is also interesting that no one ever calls a red fox an invasive species in the United States– with the except of Eastern red foxes that have been introduced to California. The red fox was not found south of the Northern Great Lakes, Northern New York, and Northern New England, but it is now found over most of the Eastern states.

It was originally claimed that it derived from English imports, but recent genetic analysis and historical research have found that red foxes in the East and South descend from those foxes that wandered south from Canada and the northern tier of states.

The red fox took advantage of the clearing of forests, which disadvantaged the gray fox, its main competitor, and came south in large numbers. They introduced themselves to the new territory in the same way that coyotes would later do as the wolves were killed off.

No one seriously considers the red fox to be an invasive species. It also has a record of being in parts of Virginia and Tennessee during the Pleistocene, but it did not exist when Europeans came.

Most states treat it as a proper game animal. Mine has a proscribed hunting and trapping season for them, but coyotes can be killed all year round.

But the “native” status of the two animals is fairly similar, and if these older accounts of anomalous small wolves in Pennsylvania and Virginia describe coyotes, then the coyote has a much stronger native status than the red fox.

“Invasive species” is a term that really does have a meaning to it, but it cannot be allowed to be used in such a way that it means any animal that inconveniences us.

We should use that term to mean animals that were introduced either by accident or intention and that have caused real ecological damage. I am thinking feral hogs here. And cane toads. And marmorated stink bug.

And yes, feral cats.

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black bear hunting

“There is no room for a bear and me in these woods,” my Grandpa Westfall always said. He always said that he’d shoot the first bear he came across, and he said that he would defend himself if he got caught with a little quip.

“If that judge asks if I shot that bear in self-defense, I will just say, ‘No, I shot him in the ass and he jumped de fence!'”

He once scoped out an errant emu in his pasture, dead certain that a black bear had foolishly popped its head out of the woods. He was just getting ready to commit a big game law violation, when the shaggy form raised its head and revealed itself as dinosaur and not the great fell beast of the mountains.

My grandpa was not an ignorant man. He was curious about nature and loved almost every animal. He was a hunter, a self-styled conservationist, who kept pet groundhogs and squirrels as a boy.

But he had a blind spot about bears.  He would always point out that some place called Bear Hollow was the place where the last bear in the county was killed. It probably wasn’t true, because there were always a few bears holding out as renegades in the deep woods. Occasionally, they would wander into more civilized areas, and all the papers would make hay about these wanderers.

Today, the bear population is growing steadily. They don’t make so much news now. The bear season is pretty liberal, and I’ve purchased the bear tag on my hunting license. For a West Virginia resident, it’s only $10, but I’ve never been in a good place to hunt bears.  Some day, I hope to be in the right place, and I’ll take a bear.

But I won’t be taking a bear with the same mens rea as my grandpa might have had if the emu had turned out to be truly ursine on that summer day. I would be taking a bear, but not because I think bears don’t belong in the forests. Bears belong in the forest. Absolutely.

But in taking a bear, I’m getting meat. It is the same meat that sustained my ancestor, Jehu Summers, who became a regionally famous frontier bear hunter in central West Virginia.

To them bears were simple things:  Bear hides for coats. Bear meat for sustenance. Bear grease for ersatz butter and cooking oil.

Both native and white used the bears in this way, and the natives likely did so for 13,000 years.before the Europeans arrived.  Hunting was the relationship between our species and theirs, and it made the bear what it is today:  a shy and retiring beast of the thick woods.

If I take a bear, I will be connecting back to my ancestor, communing with him as the flesh crosses my palate and down the maw.

The bears belong here because they sustained us long ago, and we owe to them to find a place where they can roam.

We hunt the bears to re-enact that ancient bond between bruin and hunter, adversaries in the war of existence who grapple across the same mortal plain.

The Alleghenies need their bears, just as they need people to hunt them. Without either, the landscape rings hollow and bland.

And to live next to large predators, it is of utmost importance that these animals know that nothing good can ever come from the hand of man. The black bear bolts for the brush when you wander into him in the forest, but would he think twice if some fool had been letting him eat garbage out of the backyard? If the bullets and arrows didn’t fly at the black hides, would the bears be bolder and more willing to test the gormless bipeds?

I think answer is yes, so in order to have black bears, there must be hunting. Their fear of man makes them manageable.

***

As a result of recent elections, New Jersey has slipped away from that Beachmaster Governor to one a little more rational. At least that’s how this Democrat sees it.

But about one thing this new governor seems to have been lost. I doubt he could have made it through the Democratic Primary had he possessed different views, but the new man in charge in the Garden State has promised to put an end to the bear hunt.

Bears in New Jersey have it pretty easy compared to those in West Virginia. The hunt is much more strictly regulated. An established quota is set. Once that many bears are killed, the hunt is called off that year.

In West Virginia, that $10 tag is sold to anyone who has the main hunting and fishing license.  If it gets filled or not, it is immaterial. That license can be bought next year, and if you’re really bear hungry, the state will even put you in a drawing to get a special tag to hunt your quarry in higher bear density areas that get special seasons.

But in New Jersey, bear hunting is controversial. Every year, protesters show up at hunting areas, cut some monkey shine, and get hauled off to the pokey.

New Jersey’s bear hunt has had some positive results.  Nuisance bear calls are down.  The bear population has been stablized.

With the bear hunt axed, though, it’s likely that the bears are going once again start hanging out near people. Wildlife managers with the state of New Jersey estimate that the bear population could double in four years if the bear hunt is abolished.

In the world of suburbs, the bears will do fine, but they will destroy property.  Some might decide that people are good food, and for those who might be confused, it is not entirely out of the question for a black bear to learn to hunt people. It is not species-typical behavior, but it does happen.

Bears that have learned humans hunt them, though, are going to relate to humanity with utter fear.

It is fear that keeps the peace.

And it is that peace that makes room for bears in the world of man.

It is a lesson that New Jersey is going to have to learn again. Ideology says that bears are like dogs, just bigger and tailless. Ideology ignores their cannibalism, their savagery, and the simple fact that they aren’t dogs at all but wild creatures. Yes, they eat mostly vegetable matter, but they won’t pass up a fawn lying the brush.  They won’t think twice about eating alive a deer mortally wounded by a car.  They don’t think as we do about being humane and kind and sportsmanlike.

They think about living as omnivores. Our world provides them many opportunities, and without the fear of man, they will get in trouble.

The government agencies will try to transplant the problem bears, but they often don’t learn anything. They know we’re overloaded with goodies, and they can’t resist.

And for some bears, the only solution is to die at the hands of a government employee, one whose salary and insurance are paid for by the taxpayer.

Wouldn’t a better solution be to have a regulated hunt and use hunting as way to teach the bears about our own essential savagery?  Then, the bears would know not to come into subdivisions and schoolyards and eat garbage and birdseed. And you wouldn’t have to hire a someone to shoot the incorrigibles.  The hunters would pay license fees, and the state conservation agency could pay more biologists to study bears and protect habitat for other species.

That is how West Virginia has dealt with bears. We now have more 10,000 of them wandering our hills and mountains.

Hunting is part of our management strategy for them. It works well, and it seems that having a hunt worked well for New Jersey.

But we will see what the future holds.

***

Yesterday, I went out with ICOtech predator call.  I go out on the woods with this device in hopes that I might call in a coyote or gray fox and capture it with a camera.

Yes, I am out with a hunting device, but I am hunting only with my camera.

But I have nothing against people who hunt coyotes. I just am not among their number.

Hunting doesn’t really reduce coyote numbers significantly. We’ve been hunting them with the hope of causing extinction for 150 years or so, and all we’ve done is make them increase their range to almost all of North America.

I have a certain amount of admiration of the species. They are survivors, and they are closest thing to wolves we have in this part of the country.

I don’t see them as domestic dogs, but I don’t see them as demons either. I see them as phantoms that lurk in the gray woods and let loose cackling yips and mournful howls in the deadness of night.

They don’t reveal themselves easily. They appear only when they damned well want to.

It’s this challenge that drives me to go into the woods with the call.

I started out with gray squirrel distress for 5 minutes. Nothing responded, so I went to my two gray fox distress calls for 10 minutes. No little gray dog appeared for my camera, which isn’t that much of a surprise. They are much harder to call than coyotes, at least around here.

So I switched to my coyote howls. I have several different iterations that sound like a single one howling, a pair howling, a single one howling with a different pitch, a group cacophony of howling yips, and one that sounds like three coyotes howling a beautiful opera chorus in a language that isn’t Italian or even remotely human.

I switched among these different howl types, and then I would wait five minutes to see if I got a response. I faintly heard what I think may have been a female coyote’s estrus chirp in the woods, but it was a distant chirp nontheless.  This single note of what I thought was an estrus chirp made me stick to my spot, and run through the howls again.

I had gone through five or six different howl sequences, when I heard a gravelly human voice shout from the distant ridge.  This ridge was so thickly forested that I couldn’t see a person there, and what’s more, it was perhaps a quarter mile from where I was sitting.

“You’re gonna get shot!” was what the voice shouted.

I ignored it at first, but then the stupid bastard began mocking my howls.

The land where I was sitting wasn’t his anyway, and I’ve long been allowed to hunt there. The real owners don’t care.

I shouted back at the voice “Shut the fuck up!”

“I’m on my property. I’ll do as I please.”

I shouted several expletives at the voice, which you don’t need to hear, but I flipped the hillside the bird while playing a jay in distress sound at him.

I was so incensed at this man that I went to a different location where the hollow would carry the howls right to his position. I turned it on full blast.

When I told my dad what had happened, he told me to go back out there that you cannot be bullied from doing what you have a right to do.

I didn’t quite feel like going back out there, but my dad took my call and went to woods where I had been calling. He cranked it up full blast for a half hour. No one shouted back at him.

I was so livid at this man for harassing me and ruining my coyote calling session.

But this morning it finally dawned on me why this man had been such an ass:

I scared him.

Rural people in West Virginia are told all sorts of stories about coyotes:

They kill all the deer, even though the deer are still very plentiful, and the poor hunting season in this set of ridges had more to do with a good mast year. Good mast years mean that the does stay up in the most isolated groves oak and beech, and the bucks stay with those does and never once come out into pastures or to big corn piles or feeders.  The only way to get a deer is to use your feet and figure out where they going and where they go when the guns start to crack.

But it’s easy to blame coyotes for the lack of deer at the corn piles. It’s much harder to learn the ways of the deer and get some exercise doing so.

People are also told that coyotes are a mortal threat to humanity– and that they howl just before they attack. I suppose the loudmouth on the hill had heard that story. And that’s why he acted such a fool.

I don’t know who shouted at me, and I honestly don’t care. But as angry at him as I was, I suddenly am returned to my grandpa and his hatred of bears. My grandpa never really knew the full story of black bears, and he didn’t really want to know it.

But he was still the curious naturalist of a hillside turkey hunter that I knew and loved. It’s just he had a black bear-sized blind spot that he didn’t want to fix.

Maybe that loudmouth is the same way, just his is a coyote-sized hole, and one that will cause even more aggravation. Coyotes howl. They announce their presence. Black bears don’t make themselves known at all until you lay eyes upon one.

They are much more mysterious and harder to scapegoat and revile.

But I will not accept his prejudices or let him bully me. I will call coyotes and take photos and you will see them here.

That’s my duty.

***

My views on wildlife put me in an odd position. I am a progressive Democrat, but I think animal rights ideology is woefully misguided.  I am a hunter, but I am more of an Aldo Leopold sort of hunter than a Ted Nugent.

I see coyotes in the way Leopold came to see wolves in his famous essay “Thinking Like a Mountain.” Leopold describes his sudden sorrow at killing a female Mexican wolf, which he watches die before his very eyes. Years later, he came to realize that wolves truly had a place in nature:

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

We’ve gone over a century without true wolves in West Virginia. The only wolves we have are coyotes, and their smaller size makes them almost a poor facsimile. True, they lift fawns and sometimes pack up and run down adult deer, but they are just as at home hunting mice and rabbits as they are grappling with larger prey with flailing hard hooves and strong legs.

But they do take a few deer, and those removed from the population don’t browse the forests down. Human hunters, though, think those deer belong solely for their crosshairs, and don’t want to share.

The “peace” that Leopold derided in that essay is the false peace that sets humanity at the top of all things and demands that all things bow to his whims and petty desires.  If a twelve-point buck doesn’t walk to the corn pile every deer season then it must surely be that coyotes are eating all the deer.

This is the peace I’m sure that the hilltop shouter wants every year. I bet he spent a lot of time hunting deer in the 90s, when the herds festooned every hillside and a hunter might see dozens of whitetails in a single day’s hunt. State wildlife managers tried to fix that problem by liberalizing doe harvest limits, and after a few decades of sound wildlife management, the deer numbers are somewhat lower than they were in those days of deer plagues.

The 90s deer hunter had it easy, and now the numbers are lower. He must put more effort into the hunt.

And this has come at roughly the same time that coyotes have become fully established and quite numerous as well.

These variables are probably stochastic, but to the hunter who goes home without filled tags, they must be linked. In some places, he would be right, but in the deer’s paradise that is West Virginia, he is most likely wrong.

The culprit isn’t coyotes. It’s the state realizing how bad it is to have a deer overpopulation problem.

My view is controversial among the hunting fraternity, but it really isn’t with most  professional wildlife managers.

But as controversial as that idea is, it is nothing compared to how animal rights people view all hunters as scumbags.

The fact that I hunt animals surely must mean that I am a Trump-loving redneck who hates Mexicans, carries and thumps a Bible, and drives a pickup truck with Confederate flag emblem on my vanity plate.

None of those things fit me. I just find myself– at least in this section of much-debated ideas–in an odd little crevice of nuance.

I see a place in this world for predators, both human and four-legged, and this contention is out of place.  You either want to see all non-human predators killed off, or you want to see all humans stop hunting.

Neither of these really fits an ecological view of the world. Humans are a hunting species. We have been hunting since we evolved in Africa. Following herds brought us into Eurasia and then North America.

But now we live in a world in which ideology is driving real wedges between us. In my country, people are at each other’s throats over a whole host of issues. We’ve become warring tribes

To have a more ecological view as it relates to animal issues is to court controversy, because you ultimately be both a bunny-hugger or an NRA-nutjob.

And it’s not fun to debate both sides.

In the end, I want something like the peace that is made between humans and black bears when they are hunted.  It is a peace that recognizes the importance of human hunters in maintaining wildlife on the land that exists now. It is a peace that doesn’t shun hunting because of ideology. Instead, it sees hunting as part of the puzzle that allows us to have human civilization and large numbers of black living in relative proximity to each other.

It is this kind of peace that acknowledges that humans are the peak of creation but also recognizes that human issues matter.

To stand for both human and animal predators in this era is a risky move, but after looking at all the evidence and spending so much time in woods on my own, I have come to believe that it is the correct position.

But I know I’m not alone.

 

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