All photographs © Sharon McNeill 2017

The Cull of the Coyote

The coyote is often described as wily and clever. One look at the animal’s alert eyes and

sharp features, head hunched and ready for movement, one might agree. But perhaps the coyote

is one of the most environmentally adept creatures on the planet. Opportunistic and adaptable, he

can subsist on just about any food, conform his behavior to be active at night instead of day to

avoid humans, and easily live in different habitats. Like Coyote in Native American lore,

younger brother to Sinauf, the Ute half man, half wolf Creator, and Wolf, today’s coyote is a


One thing that doesn’t quite fit the sustainability mold is the animal’s mini population

explosions. In an undisturbed coyote pack, only the alphas breed, and at an average of six pups

per litter, they bear more pups than can survive, so that when there is a death in the pack, another

can step in to take that spot. But it is when the pack is subject to indiscriminate killing –– killing

as many coyotes as possible in an area, given the resources available –– the real population

explosion begins. Dr. Robert Crabtree, expert on undisturbed coyote populations and founder

and chief scientists of Yellowstone Ecological Center says, “It cannot be overemphasized how

powerfully coyote populations compensate for population reductions. Indiscriminate killing

triggers a response in which other pack members begin breeding in larger numbers. Hunting

outside the normal food range becomes necessary to feed the large number of puppies. Solitary

pack members often strike out on their own.”

Since their earliest fossil records from the Middle Pleistocene, about a million years

ago, coyotes have lived in the American west. Only in the past 50 years, since their natural

predators –– wolves, bears and cougars –– have nearly disappeared, have coyotes thrived to their

current numbers. They are now in every state in the US except Hawaii.

Now the coyote’s biggest predator is man. In Utah, the country’s largest predator

control program is waged mostly at the coyote. Officially to improve hunting of the mule deer,

the “Mule Deer Protection Act” offers a $50 bounty for each coyote killed.

Each month, at 21 locations across the state, hunters present a scalp with both ears

attached, along with the lower jaw of each coyote killed. More than 7,000 coyotes have been

turned in for each of the years since the program began in 2012, plus about 250 more from

contracted hunters who were each paid $10,0000. Although the total number of coyotes in the

state are unknown, the law allows for 10,000 of the animals to be killed each year. Utah allots

$500,000 yearly for bounties, and another $600,000 to Wildlife Services to gun coyotes from


The concept behind this program is simplistic: if we eliminate coyotes, mule deer

populations will increase. But is it working? Utah State University study on the state’s bounty

program says no: “Overall, these results suggest that while Utah’s coyote bounty may provide an

enhanced, subsidized recreation program for a small segment of Utah’s citizens, it’s unlikely to

have any beneficial effect on populations of livestock or big game.” In other words, the study

says the program is contributing to sport hunting for big game enthusiasts.

“I think the main strength of the program is that people that hate/blame coyotes feel

better that coyotes are being killed. That Utah tax payers provide the funding does not seem to

be an issue for them.,” says John Shivik, PhD, mammals coordinator for Utah’s Wildlife

Resources. “Bounties are at most extremely inefficient, but quite likely to be ineffective for

producing beneficial effects for big game or livestock

In the state’s own audit on the “Mule Deer Protection Act”, loss and degradation of

habitat are said to be the main culprits for mule deer population declines in western North

America over the last few decades. Crucial mule deer habitat is continuously being lost in many

parts of Utah and severely fragmented in others due to population expansion, development and

natural events. When there is a rebound in deer numbers, credit is being given to expansive

habitat-restoration efforts. “Limited by habitat, cold, and drought––and not predators––fawns

that aren’t eaten die later that winter,” says Shivik. “No actual increase in deer populations occur.

…Many wild habitats where deer now occur are more or less saturated, and a certain number are

destined to die every year. The proximate cause is irrelevant. If coyotes do not kill the surplus

fawns, the deer will die from other causes, especially starvation or exposure.”

It is clear that they often prey on weak or sick animals, improving the overall health of

the species. This could have a beneficial effect by reducing disease transmission.

Out of Balance

When we look at coyotes, we must look at wolves. They are part of the same

ecosystem, each affects the other. Is the bounty program throwing the ecology of the region out

of balance? There is no doubt that removal of wolves has increased coyote numbers. But the

indiscriminate bounty killing is reducing those numbers across the state, often in localized

regions. Since coyotes eat mostly rabbits and rodents, the numbers of those species are now

increasing. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Ecology has shown that an increase in

lagomorphs (mainly jackrabbits) due to coyote hunting in Utah’s Henry Mountains has

contributed to competition with cattle for grasslands. In an ironic twist, the ranchers in the area

had assumed the competition came from bison, but an investigation into the breakdown of

grassland loss showed lagomorphs ate 34%, bison 13% and cattle 52%. When we remove one

part of the food chain it resounds to many others.

In another example, biologists were stumped at the disappearance of aspen trees in

Yellowstone National Park. When they looked at the tree rings, they found that the trees had

stopped regenerating in the 1930s––the same time that all the park’s wolves had been killed for

bounty. The missing wolves resulted in elk overgrazing the aspens and the subsequent loss of

trees, along with stream side vegetation, and beaver and songbird habitat.

Collateral Damage

Wolves are federally protected as an Endangered Species, but last December, a female

wolf who traveled from the Northern Rockies to the Grand Canyon was shot and killed by a

hunter in Utah who claimed he thought she was a coyote, even though she was wearing a radiotracking

collar. Just weeks before, school children around the country celebrated the “first wolf

seen in the Grand Canyon since the 1940s” by naming her Echo.

An investigation into the killing of a protected animal is ongoing, but under the highlydivisive

McKittrick Policy, an act that prohibits prosecuting individuals who kill endangered

wildlife unless it can be proved that they knew they were targeting a protected animal, the

shooter will likely not go to trail over the killing.

In a statement, Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy,

based in Salt Lake City, said, “This is a very sad day for wolf conservation and for Utah. All

competent wildlife biologists already know that coyote hunting, including our state bounty

program, is ineffective, and therefore a waste of money – and now we see that it is also a threat

to other wildlife and to wolf recovery.”

While environmental groups act to litigate the Department of Justice to stop the

McKittrick Policy, sport hunting groups seem in no hurry to leave the wolves alone. The special

interest group Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife has received more than $800,000 in funding from

the state to “delist” or turn the management of wolves to state control, which would usurp the

federal government’s oversight of all gray wolves in the US, which are listed as an endangered

species. An October 2013 audit of the Division of Wildlife contract with the group recommended

greater accounting and performance transparency.


The coyote’s resilience is legendary. They do eat deer and livestock, but it is often

carrion or from scavenging hunter or other predator kills. They mainly subsist on rodents,

rabbits, carrion, fruit. Analysis of coyotes stomach matter regularly shows such contents as grass,

hay, insects, leather, paper even tinfoil. Not only are coyotes uniquely adaptable to almost every

environment in the country, but they keep their ecosystems in balance. It’s a finely calibrated

system. And coyotes, not the strongest or the largest, are perhaps the most persistent. Trapped,

poisoned, shot at, electrocuted, the list continues. But the coyote prevails. Crabtree continues,

“Just think of the selective pressures, when you think about 100 years of control. In a lot of

areas, you’re killing off half the population. That leaves the smart ones, which reproduce. The

next year you kill half of those. Do that for 100 years and ask yourself, what kind of species do

we have now?”

Shivik is similarly skeptical, “All of the scientific evidence collected before the


and then after the program was initiated indicated that it is a tremendous waste of

money. The Mule Deer Protection Act does not have a sunset that I know of. I have not heard

anyone fighting against it. The general public appears to be apathetic about it.”


The Ute legend goes that the when the earth was young, it was time for it there to be

people. The Creator, Sinauf crafted many sticks, all different but the same size. He put them into

a magic bag and gave it to Coyote. “Carry these over the far hills to the valleys beyond.” He

gave specific directions Coyote was to follow and told him what to do when he got there. “I am

giving you a great responsibility. Do not –– under any circumstances –– open the bag, until you

reach the sacred grounds.”

“What do I carry?” asked Coyote

“I will say no more. Now. Go.” Sinauf answered.

But Coyote was curious, that is his nature, after all. As soon as he was out of sight, he

placed the bag on the ground. He looked at it, nosed it, nudged it. He walked around it, walked

away. Looked at it over his shoulder. “Just one peek into the bag couldn’t hurt,” he thought. But

of course he was wrong.

The moment he untied the bag, all the sticks rushed out, which were now people. They

yelled and hollered in many strange tongues. Coyote tried to gather them back up, but they all

ran off in different directions. He took the bag up and carried it on with him to the sacred valley.

There were only a few stick people left in the bag by the time he got there, but those were the

ones he dumped out in the sacred valley. And those were the true Utes.

Sinauf was angry. “Those you let escape will forever war with the chosen ones, They

will be the tribes which will always be a thorn in the sides of the Utes.”

The truth is, we rarely ever know what will be the consequences of our actions. Pandora

couldn’t put the chaos back into the box, just like you can’t put the cat back into the bag –– or

the people, as is the case with Coyote. Maybe some of those people sticks that Coyote let out of

the bag were the ones that are warring with the coyotes of Utah today.

Works Cited

Shivik, John. The Predator Paradox, Beacon Press, 2014. Print (plus interview)

Utah’s Division of Wildlife, Utah's Predator Control Program,


Utah Indians,

Crabtree, Robert, Dr., Letter for Predator Defense,


Project Coyote,, Letter opposing Mule Deer Protection Act, http://

Utah Division of Wildlife Services, Department of Natural Resources, Utah Mule Deer

Protection Plan,

Utah Division of Wildlife Services, Department of Natural Resources, Report, Utah Contract

136039, Big Game Forever, Wold De-listing Efforts


Report to the Utah Legislature, A Review of Appropriated Wolf Management Funds, http://

Ranglack, Dustin, Durham, Susan, du Toit, Johan T, Competition on the Range, Journal of

Applied Ecology, 26 Jan 2015

Ripple, William J, Wirsing, Aaron J, Wilmers, Christopher C., Widespread Mesopredator Effects

After Wolf Extirpation, Biological Conservation, Apr 2013

Smith, Douglas W., Rolf O. Peterson, and Douglas B. Houston. "Yellowstone after wolves."

BioScience 53, no. 4 (2003): 330-340.

 All photographs © Sharon McNeill 2017