Coyotes and wild horses

Lots in common

Coyote in Fish Lake Valley Nevada (by Dyer) - photo: Don Molde

Opinion

What do coyotes and wild horses have in common in Nevada?  

Both make the news more than any other animal or wildlife species in the state.  Both suffer from the lack of a successful coexistence strategy with us, and are themselves blamed for that failure. Detractors claim they are non-native invasive species.

Wayne Pacelle, President of Animal Wellness Action, and long-time wildlife and domestic animal advocate has written persuasively about shortcomings of wild horse management by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In his view, one of the biggest mistakes made by the BLM is to manage wild horses as though they are cattle…by using roundups  

Different from domestic livestock, wild horses have a well-known genetically determined social structure, i.e., a stable band with a lead stallion, lead mare, non-breeding subadult females, and other social mechanisms allowing wild horses to self-manage within their environment including limiting population growth.  

Under preferred conditions, only the lead mare becomes pregnant.  Subadult females help raise the foals and maintain band structure. Individual bands tend to repel each other, maintaining distance and motion through their environment. 

A partial roundup…. a large incomplete random (non-selective) gathering of horses (often by helicopter) … mindlessly destroys existing band structures and removes other stabilizing influences that the band structure provides.

The predictable result is that fertility rates increase for at least two reasons:  subadult females are available to breed; forage conditions for remaining horses improve (so-called compensatory adjustment) enhancing herd fertility.

The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) currently has no interest, plan, or strategy for dealing with coyotes. The animal is unclassified (without protection) by law, meaning it can be killed anytime by any means in a random unplanned fashion, resembling….in a strange way…. the random, non-selective wild horse roundups by BLM contractors.

Coyote headshot – photo: courtesy of Project Coyote

Coyotes have a genetic preference for a pack structure. The alpha male and alpha female mate for life. (They are monogamous.) Only the alpha female breeds.  Subadult females within the pack help raise pups and serve other duties to keep the pack together.  Juveniles leave the pack at a certain point to seek new home ranges and establish their own packs.

When coyotes are randomly and/or intensively killed by trappers, ill-spirited individuals, or management agencies (e.g., USDA/APHIS/Wildlife Services), the pack structure is destroyed. The built-in social constraints limiting sub-adult female fertility are removed and coyote population dynamics change dramatically.

Several years ago, NDOW and the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC) spent $325,000 over 5 years to pursue Projects 14 & 15…. intensively killing coyotes in S. E. Nevada to enhance mule deer numbers. Bathed in naivety and doomed to failure, this effort resulted in the deaths of over 1200 coyotes. There was no benefit to mule deer numbers. 

An NDOW biologist and a graduate student studied the characteristics of the dead coyotes.  Their findings confirmed (in dramatic fashion) what is known about coyote population dynamics under stress:

  • During the 5th (and last) year of the project, three times more coyotes were killed than in the 1st year, the obverse of what would be anticipated. 
  • During the 3rd year and thereafter, coyote litter size tripled with increased pup survival.
  • During the 5th year, the mean age of coyotes killed dropped by half compared to the 1st year with a slight male predominance.  

The net effect of Projects 14 & 15 (and other similar projects continuing to this day) is to produce more coyotes (not fewer), mostly undisciplined juveniles with a male predominance, lacking the stability of a pack structure while potentially presenting an increased depredation risk to adjacent livestock or domestic pets.

We know wild horses lived in Nevada thousands of years ago. The Nevada State Museum has an ancient horse skeleton on display, taken from the shores of Pyramid Lake. The history of the coyote in Nevada is not as well written, though the “little wolf” as early travelers in the West called them, were ubiquitous.  

Some maps depicting the original home range of coyotes (before the extermination of wolves allowed coyotes to expand dramatically) show the western edge of their home range just east of Nevada. Other mapmakers don’t agree.  Camilla Fox, Project Coyote founder and director, points out that the La Brea Tar Pits in Southern California contain evidence of coyote remains dating back to the Pleistocene. Coyotes have been in Nevada for a long time.

How many coyotes live in Nevada?  

The only credible estimate of coyote numbers is by USDA/APHIS/Wildlife Services (WS) as reported in its recently updated Environmental Assessment (EA). (The National Environmental Policy Act requires an agency that has the potential to cause environmental harm to evaluate its impact for public review via an Environmental Impact Statement or Environmental Assessment.) Since WS kills coyotes in Nevada as part of its program activities, it had to address that issue in its EA.

WS estimates a coyote density of 0.5 – 1.0 coyote per square mile in Nevada’s 110,000 square miles, providing an estimated coyote population, statewide, between 55,000 – 110,000 animals. NDOW has never had a credible estimate.

How many coyotes die in Nevada every year?

Annual coyote mortality in Nevada can be estimated by combining kill numbers reported by WS in its annual report with annual coyote numbers killed by fur trappers and reported to NDOW. Additional unreported coyote deaths occur frequently from auto collisions, gratuitous killing by individuals and groups, and more.

As a rule of thumb, annual coyote mortality in Nevada probably numbers between 8000 – 10,000 animals per year.  Despite this substantial tally, human-coyote conflict situations continue to make the news and generate many calls to NDOW.  

While wild horse and burro management gets a lot of attention in the press, there is no equivalent discussion about coyotes and how best to live with them. 

Here’s a question: “Isn’t it time to consider using what we know to learn to coexist with coyotes in such a way as to minimize or avoid the unintended adverse consequences we now experience, in large part at our own making?”

Just a thought.


Don Molde is a 50-year Reno resident, retired psychiatrist, co-founder of Nevada Wildlife Alliance, former board member of Defenders of Wildlife, and former board member of the Nevada Humane Society. He has been active in wildlife advocacy for 45 years.


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