Coyotes, elk, and octuplets


Summer nights wouldn't feel quite right if the open windows did not allow me to hear the occasional howling of coyotes. The wild canines provide a sonic reminder that even though I live in town, it's a small town surrounded by thousands of acres of wonderful Big Empty.

But actually, the coyote howls convey no such message. The critter manages pretty well around human settlement. Unlike many wild predators such as the wolf, the coyote has actually expanded its range in the past century, moving into the eastern United States. One even appeared in New York City's Central Park in 1999.

They're also doing pretty well in parts of the West. Upscale suburbs with big lots and greenbelts apparently offer good coyote habitat, as evidenced by recent events in Greenwood Village on the south side of Denver.

There, a coyote attacked a 14-year-old boy last December. He fought it off and was not injured. Since the start of 2008, Greenwood Village has logged 194 coyote sightings, and 20 attacks on animals, most of them pets.

So the town government has approved hiring a contractor who will hunt coyotes in public spaces in the hope of reducing the population. It's a public-safety issue, according to Jim Sanderson, the city manager, because the population is out of control.

Meanwhile, about 80 miles northwest of Greenwood Village in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Park Service has engaged hunters to reduce the elk population by up to 100 cows. The wapiti are destroying willows and aspen, habitat for beaver and birds.

Predictably, there's an environmental lawsuit, this one filed by WildEarth Guardians, which would prefer that the Park Service import some wolves (pretty much eliminated from Colorado for the past 75 years) to whittle down the elk population.

But wait. Couldn't there be a win-win solution? Just trap some of Greenwood Village's abundant coyotes and release them in Rocky Mountain National Park to prey on elk instead of house pets?

No, not really. While coyotes do dine on elk meat, it's generally in the form of carrion from elk that died of other causes. A coyote isn't big enough to take on an adult elk, and coyotes don't hunt in large packs like elk-killing wolves.

So even if the idea is appealing, it's not a solution. Killing some coyotes in Greenwood Village may not be much of a solution, either. As one reference puts it, "The coyote's reproduction level appears to be directly correlated to attempts to control its population. Larger litters seem to be born in areas where intensive efforts at extermination or control have been undertaken."

In other words, if part of the coyote population is removed, the remaining coyotes just have more pups. And the coyotes manage to do this without the bother of a fertility clinics, the course taken by Ms. Octuplet, that California woman whose name I debate using.

On one hand, the more publicity she gets, the more likely she'll get a seven-figure book advance, a TV movie of the week, and her own weekly reality show from the house with 14 children. I can't be the only one who's already tired of her.

On the other hand, with the monetary results of fame, she may be able to pay the medical bills and support the children, thereby saving taxpayers a fortune. So perhaps society would be better served if one jumped aboard this publicity train.

There's no easy answer to this one, just as there's no easy solution to the prolific breeding of coyotes and elk in certain places.

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