By Peg DiBenedetto

A coyote crossed fast in front my car. I braked hard and a moment later a second, larger coyote followed the first, traveling just as quickly.

Breeding season. Females den up in the upper ledge rocks above the cabin and give birth sometime around April. The little pups open their eyes in about 2 weeks, then clumsily begin to explore their new world around the ledges. In about 6 weeks the pups wean, and not long afterwards Mom and Dad and helpful aunties teach the youngsters how to hunt: Lessons on how to sit still, to listen for little critters in the grass. How to pounce accurately, then capture what you landed on, and what to do with what you’ve caught.

In Autumn, young males leave their packs to roam and wander through the Catskills until each finds unoccupied acreage with abundant squirrels or other food, a bit of water, and good shelter. They scent mark the territory with urine and try to hold and defend against intruders.

Young females generally stay with Mom and Dad and serve as helpful aunties to subsequent litters; occasionally some wander off to join up with lone males. Only Mom and Dad—the alpha pair —breed and raise their young.

Coyote family

Coyotes help keep rodent and rabbit populations in check, but nearly a third of a coyote’s summer diet consists of fawns, earning it a red mark from hunters. And some farmers are concerned that coyotes will kill their farm animals. As former farmers ourselves, my husband Michael and I found a bigger threat to livestock. Two beautiful calves from a neighboring dairy farm and several of our sheep and chickens were killed not by coyotes but by domestic dogs.

One human response to the Eastern Coyote is trapping. Current pelt prices are between $10 and $20; not much when gasoline and time are factored in. And one of the least humane trapping methods is the leg-hold trap. Steel jaws clamp shut on the leg of the animal, catching either the intended species or an accidental one. A chain extending from the trap is affixed to a stationary objectto keep the animal in place until the trapper checks the trap and dispatches the take—by law once every 24 hours, but in practice, sometimes much longer. There are reports of animals gnawing off limbs to escape from traps. And a disturbing discovery occurred at our golden eagle study site.

Leg Hold Trap

My husband was at the site and investigated a noise in the underbrush. A frightened coyote ran away from him, except it wasn’t running. It was hopping. And then Michael saw that both of the coyote’s front paws were stuck in a leg-hold trap. The coyote must have pounced with both feet and landed in the trap, and apparently the trap’s chain hadn’t been secured. He followed the coyote to a small stream where it seemed to give up. Michael leaned his phone against a rock with the camera on, aimed at the coyote. He spoke softly and calmly as he approached it.

He straddled the coyote between his legs and used his feet to try to spring the trap. The coyote must have been exhausted and bewildered, and let Michael do what he had to. Eventually he was able to open the trap, then stood back. The coyote took tentative steps away from him into the cold water. The coyote seemed very sore, and Michael wondered if he’d have to take it to the rehabilitation center. It was able to walk, though, and Michael left it to rest and recover. When he checked later on, it had gone.

The video he took can be found on YouTube at “AntiTrapping Video for NM Campaign.” Largely because of Michael’s forethought to film this encounter, the State of New Mexico voted to join several other states in banning the use of leg-hold traps. Unfortunately New York State is not yet among them.

Another backlash to coyotes is the annual 3-day Coyote Hunting Contest, open to hunters in New York State and northern Pennsylvania. Cash prizes are awarded, and coyote hunters spend weeks preparing for the “hunt” by getting the coyotes used to eating from bait piles of deer and livestock carcasses.

   However, when either, or both, of the alpha pair are removed, the pack disbands, and young, fertile females disperse to find mates and establish new packs. This results in high numbers of a younger breeding population, which in turn results in more litters. Instead of decreasing the coyote population, coyote hunting has the inverse result of increasing it, but in what to me is a very sad and unnatural way.

Nature has a way of balancing itself out. Maybe the coyotes will have the last say after all.~