by Carl Strang
I don’t know the geography of those of you who read this blog. If you live in the Chicago area you probably heard something of the controversy over coyotes this winter. Coyotes are our largest resident predators (the qualifier “resident” is necessary because of the occasional wandering mountain lion). A good sized adult coyote weighs only 30 pounds or so, but they look bigger because of their long legs. Generally they stay out of sight. Here is one of Mayslake Forest Preserve’s coyotes, which I photographed from my vehicle on a recent early morning. Though they apparently spend most of their time on the preserve, I see one only once per month at best.
People notice coyotes more in winter, when they stand out against the snow and have less cover with the leaves off the bushes and trees. Even so, they generally do a good job of staying out of sight. That behavior changes, however, under certain conditions. The less capable hunters are subject to disease, usually mange, when the stresses of winter take them beyond their ability. A mangy coyote loses much of its awareness and is more likely to be seen. Another factor which can bring coyotes into the open is feeding by people. This apparently was behind the controversy in Wheaton, my county seat. A small dog was attacked by coyotes, and died from its injuries. People reported seeing coyotes in that part of Wheaton on a regular basis. The town went to the expense of hiring a trapper, who killed several animals. Nearly all of them proved to have been getting handouts.
For years, decades actually, we nature educators have been doing our best to discourage behavior that can lead to conflicts between coyotes and people. First on the list is, don’t feed them. Even unintentional feeding like leaving out extra dog food or failing to clean up after cookouts can provide meals that will bring coyotes closer. They are intelligent enough to associate people with this food source, and lose some of their shyness. The second rule is not to allow small pets to run loose, even in the yard, unsupervised. We define “small” at 15 pounds. Though clearly everyone didn’t get the message, what encouraged me about this incident was how many people were vocal in their opposition to Wheaton’s decision to remove coyotes. In my town of Warrenville, adjacent to Wheaton, a newspaper’s editorial pages criticized our neighbor city’s actions while emphasizing the responsibility of people to avoid behavior that can change the coyote’s status as an always present but seldom seen, shy consumer of wild prey. Wheaton stopped after removing 4 or 5 animals, and since has taken steps to outlaw feeding them.
This gives me hope that if we are clear and persistent in our message it will register with people, even though they may not act on it right away. For decades we nature educators have been pointing out the hazards that attend many of our civilization’s collective choices. A mistake is to categorize these educational efforts as “environmental concerns,” as if we can pretend that such behavior will affect only some “environment” over there while we can go on as usual. I think of these issues as human survival concerns. It’s clear to me that, despite all the press coverage, we don’t take them seriously. If we did, human population growth, for instance, would take a prominent place in the discussion. It seldom is mentioned. We pretend that if we just cut this emission or switch to that technology, we’ll otherwise be able to continue on as we have. The hope the coyote incident gives me is that people have heard the message even if they haven’t acted on it, and when the crunch comes they will change their behavior accordingly. The only question is, will it be too late?