Human and canine coevolution

 

I remember the day, years ago, I first saw them, while wandering through the raggedy wildlands behind our Midwestern neighborhood. Suddenly, they appeared — a pack of dogs at the edge of the woods, looking straight at me. I froze. Surely they would advance, snarling, to take down this slow, weak suburban prey. But they gazed at me without fear and apparently without malice, and then slipped silently into the oaks. 

Not dogs. Coyotes.

I never saw coyotes there again, but decades later, when I moved to the rural West, they became a steady presence in my world. They ran across our fields by day and sang haunting choruses by night. My rancher neighbors were highly attuned to them as well; they routinely shot any coyote they saw. It was the only way, they believed, to keep these wily predators fearful and few.

That’s been the attitude of the little-known federal agency that, for nearly a century, has “controlled” predators on behalf of ranchers and farmers. As Ben Goldfarb reports in this week’s cover story, Wildlife Services routinely kills tens of thousands of coyotes every year — 61,638 in 2014 alone.

Yet the coyote has survived, and even expanded its range to virtually every ecosystem on the continent. Ecologists believe that killing adult coyotes actually encourages early breeding and more successful pup production, yet the agency has stuck to its guns — and its traps — largely because, as Goldfarb reports, its rancher clients, who help pay its bills, want a quick return on their investment.

The story, though, doesn’t end there. Prodded on the inside by folks like biologist Julie Young, Wildlife Services is slowly evolving, just like the other federal natural resource agencies in the West, and it has begun introducing the nonlethal forms of predator control favored by activists, such as guard dogs, fencing, noise and lights. More and more ranchers are willing to give them a try.

Executive director and publisher Paul Larmer

Though significant barriers to reform remain, especially the agency’s reliance on local funding, it was heartening to hear Young say at a recent meeting, “I can think of people who hate the fact that I work for the agency I work for, but 80 to 90 percent of what we’re trying to do is the exact same thing.”

And that is to manage these marvelous lands with ecological intelligence and a sense of compassion for all their denizens, whether human, domesticated or wild. As we go to press, a band of misinformed rogues is occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon’s high desert. They seem to have forgotten that the West’s public lands belong to all of us, and that there is common ground to be found, even with deeply entrenched bureaucracies, if we are willing to work for it.    

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