Earth Notes: Coyotes — Nature’s tick control

August 9th, 2019

By Lega Medcalf

Predators, such as coyotes, are part of a healthy ecosystem and are especially beneficial because they control the population of rodents and therefore the population of ticks. Data from long-term Lyme disease studies in both the United States and Europe shows that the risk of contracting Lyme disease is greater where there is a high mouse population coupled with a low predator population. In other words, predators slow the spread of Lyme, anaplasmosis, and the myriad of other diseases that are spread by ticks because they eat mice, the primary carriers of ticks. To clarify, coyotes primarily feed on mice and other rodents, and mice are the primary vectors of ticks.

However, despite the fact that coyotes, our native dog species, feed primarily on mice and other small mammals, they are not valued and are, instead, vilified and persecuted like no other mammalian animal. Maine allows the unlimited killing of coyotes with the erroneous justification that this protects the deer population. While coyotes do occasionally eat fawns and sick deer, hunting by humans, habitat loss, availability of food, and snow depth are more important factors in determining deer population. Anyhow, at last count, the population of deer, mice, and ticks was doing quite nicely and I write this after having crushed yet another tick that was climbing up my leg.

Maine allows coyotes to be killed year-round, day and night, and with no limit to the number that can be “bagged”. All methods of killing them are sanctioned by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W), and this includes “body-count” contests. These contests are barbaric blood sports and, like dogfighting and cockfighting, need to be outlawed. On one website, a Maine guide advertises that “We’ve spent over 19 years trapping, calling, baiting, and chasing the coyote. Yet, every time we get one, that same thrill of excitement returns. One of the most effective ways we have found to repeatedly harvest the coyote is over bait at night.”

The thrill of killing (“harvesting” is misleading) was made apparent to us while snowmobiling. Our group came across a horrific scene of more than 70 coyote carcasses that had been strung up as trophies across tall wooden poles. Nearby, in the snow, tethered by short chains to their doghouses were about two dozen short-haired hounds surrounded by their feces. This disgusting display opened our eyes to the other side of a very demented mentality that is prevalent in some parts of Maine and that is also sanctioned by the MDIF&W. Needless to say, the conditions that the hounds lived under were also appalling and during a phone call to the local animal control officer I was told that there was nothing he could do about the situation because it met Maine’s minimum outdoor standards of shelter — something else that needs to be addressed.

Killing for sustenance is ethical and acceptable but killing for the “thrill” is pathologically twisted and damages the reputation of the MDIF&W. Coyote killing contests are especially prevalent in Aroostook and Penobscot counties. These contests, which sometimes include a children’s division, offer cash and prizes to the participants who kill the most or largest coyotes. This is not the responsible and science-based stewardship that MDIF&W communicates to the general public. Rather, it is placation for special interest groups that see any changes in hunting regulations as an attack on “Maine’s heritage of hunting” and the start down “the slippery slope of gun control.”

Killing-for-thrills is not only perverted but also misguided because studies of coyote behavior show that their populations are regulated when left alone. Coyotes live in highly social family packs. The monogamous alpha male of the pack breeds with just one alpha female who then gives birth to the only litter of pups. The other females and younger males are referred to as being “behaviorally sterile” and help in caring for the pups. When an alpha male is killed, a phenomenon referred to as “compensatory breeding” occurs and the younger subordinate males mate with females and many more pups are born.

Conflicts with coyotes due to habitat loss and the attraction of food or garbage left outside can create problems. Coyotes that are fed can lose their natural fear of humans, but coexistence is possible and there are many practical measures available online. In fact, open-minded ranchers, who value rodent control, have found that using nonlethal and nonpoisonous methods of protecting livestock can be very effective. And, is it not our responsibility to keep small pets under our direct supervision?

Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Vermont have all recently passed laws to ban coyote-killing contests. Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife should change its mindset and acknowledge the important role that coyotes have in our state and, at the very least, support a ban on killing contests. Coyotes are nature’s tick control, a tick control that is effective and nontoxic. Let’s value the coyote’s place in the ecosystem and ignore the hysteria that some hunting communities stir up to scare the public.

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