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Impacts Of The Eastern Coyote On Wildlife Populations
The Eastern Coyote has only in relative recent times expanded its range to the eastern United States. The coyote has been a significant predator in the west and it will likely prove to have the same impacts in the east.
Historically, the coyote was commonly found in the Great Plains of western and mid-western states. During the last 50 years, expansion of the coyote eastward has come from the northwest and southeast. Today, the coyote occupies every state in the continental United States and ranges from Alaska to the Panama Canal. On their path to the east the coyote hybridized with timber wolves in the north and red wolves in the south and possibly wild dogs. Thus, at 20 to 45 pounds, the eastern coyote is bigger than its western cousin. The eastern expansion of the coyote was probably a result of the elimination of its ancient foe the timber wolf and the establishment of the deer herd in the east as a food base. The coyote is an adaptable animal and there may be more coyotes today than there were in colonial times.
It has been said that the coyote’s favorite food is anything they can chew. The coyote is a carnivore that is able to adapt to the available food supply. The coyote is a significant predator of both wildlife species and farmer’s livestock. Primary wildlife species that the coyote prey upon are white-tailed deer and small mammals such as rats and mice. Their diet also consists of rabbits, groundhogs, ruffed grouse, turkeys, chipmunks, squirrels, muskrats, fruits, berries, carrion, and the occasional house cat.
While the coyote is a significant predator on wildlife populations, it should be noted that predation is a natural part of the ecosystem. The addition of the coyote to the ecosystem can change ecological balances of predator and prey species, but it will not eliminate other species from the environment. Predators serve a valuable function to keep prey species in balance with their habitat. Rodents such as rats and mice would be soon out of control without predators.
Predator-prey relationships between the white-tailed deer and the coyote have been extensively studied. The coyote is a significant predator of deer fawns. Studies in Texas have shown that the coyote’s diet consists of 70% fawns during June and July. Sheep predation by coyotes is known to drop drastically when fawns are born around the first of June. The synchronous birth of fawns in June allows the numbers of fawns to overwhelm the predators, and although a large number of fawns are taken during the first month of the fawns’ lives, they become relatively secure after about one month. During winter predation again picks up and deer again become the main diet of coyotes. Although the coyote takes healthy adult deer during the winter, winter killed and wounded deer as well as carcasses and offal from hunting season probably make up the bulk of the winter diet.
In areas, such as West Virginia, where deer populations are abundant, coyote predation may benefit deer health by reducing the deer herd and providing more nutrients for the remaining deer. Coyote predation also has the potential to have significant negative effects on deer herds. In some northern states, deer herd densities are relatively low and their habitat consists of vast wild areas with severe winter weather. In Maine, food habitat studies showed that white-tailed deer made up 50-60% of the coyote’s diet, and this predation had the potential to have significant negative effects on the deer herd. Coyote predation in the high mountain areas of West Virginia with lower deer populations and severe winters is likely to have more effect on the deer herd than in areas with higher deer populations.
In Texas, fawn survival in a coyote proof enclosure was significantly higher than outside the enclosure; however, as deer populations in the enclosure exceeded their carrying capacity fawn survival from 6-12 months was greatest outside the enclosure because the fawns were in better physical condition. This demonstrated that coyote predation in a deer population that exceeded the carrying capacity of the habitat could increase survival of older fawns.
In a fawn survival study in Centre County Pennsylvania during 2000-2001, 218 fawns were radioed and followed with telemetry equipment. Of these fawns, predators killed 22 percent, the leading source of mortality. Of the fawns killed by predators, most were killed by coyotes (49%) and bears (43%). Nearly 50% of all mortality occurred during the month of June, with 18 percent and 16 percent in July and August. It was interesting to note that 84 percent of fawn predation occurred on one of two study areas. This probably illustrates the difference in predation rates due to localized coyote populations.
Red and Grey Fox
Although coyotes and foxes share a common range throughout much of North America, there appears to be an inverse relationship between the densities of coyotes and that of foxes. High densities of coyotes tend to limit the distribution of fox territories and their numbers. Biologists have noted the decline of foxes following the colonization of coyotes into an area. Foxes apparently avoid core home ranges of coyote to avoid contact with the stronger predator. The territory of the grey fox occupies more interior woodland and apparently encounters are less common than in the more open land territory of the red fox. Most studies have concluded that foxes are not eliminated but become less common when coyotes invade their territory.
Studies in Missouri have concluded that recolonization by coyotes did not affect bobcat populations. However, studies in several western states concluded that coyotes were better competitors than bobcat for limited food supplies, and where food supplies were limited competition from coyotes could lower bobcat populations.
Turkey and Ruffed Grouse
The coyote preys on both turkey and ruffed grouse. However, it is not known how significant this predator is to turkey and grouse populations. During West Virginia’s 5-year Wild Turkey Survival Study, only one incidence of coyote predation was noted. During the Mid-Appalachian Cooperative Ruffed Grouse Study, mammal mortality made up 29% of total mortality of ruffed grouse. It is expected that coyote predation was a small percentage of the total mortality.
The coyote is now a permanent member of the fauna in West Virginia. Although the coyote is a significant predator on wildlife in West Virginia, it is a part of the natural ecosystem. The coyote takes a proportion of fawns in West Virginia, but in many areas this predation may be beneficial to the health of the deer herd. Since the coyote is still colonizing areas in West Virginia, potential densities of coyotes and thus potential impacts are unknown. Coyotes have stabilized at densities in mid-western states that are not threatening to other wildlife species. The coyote is an adaptable predator that despite years of persecution has survived and even expanded their range. Predator control of coyotes because of wildlife predation is unwarranted and unnecessary. Predator control of coyotes preying on livestock should be restricted to targeted animals. Although bounties have been liberally used on coyotes in the west, no bounty system has ever worked. Liberal trapping seasons for the coyote should continue. Methods to encourage the sport of predator calling and means to target the coyote as a furbearer and game animal should be explored.
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