iSeeChange: Call Of The Coyote

Sep 3, 2015

Many people move out to the Western Slope to get away from city life and enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of nature.  When those sounds disappear, though, it can be concerning.

Credit flickr user witnessoflight

A little while ago, Sue Husch, a listener out near Ridgway, posted on iseechange.org that something stood out this summer.  Or rather, something was missing. 

“Normally we would hear, especially early in the morning,” said Sue, “the coyotes howling and packing up  and moving in the area.  We have not heard them at all, not at all, this whole summer.”

Coyotes aren’t disappearing from the Western Slope.  They’ve been spotted a few miles away from Sue, but it’s still unusual that there are none by her.  Especially with all the prey.

“We’ve always seen a few rabbits, but this year, not only are there a lot of rabbits, but even now there’s babies,” she said.

What’s so strange about this is that, generally speaking, the more prey there is, the more the predators will reproduce.

“Following that theory through, it seems there should be more coyotes, not less,” said Sue.  “I’m wondering if it takes one season - like will there be more coyotes next spring, or should it be happening now and it just isn’t?”

So where are the coyotes?  And with so much food scampering around, shouldn’t there be more, not less?

Stewart Breck works for the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins.  He mainly studies bears, wolves, and coyotes.

“I wish I had a simple answer for you,” said Breck, “but like most of ecology it’s somewhat complex and there’s multiple things going on.  In general you’re right, more prey usually results in more predators.”

He says two main factors could be why there aren’t coyotes going on a feeding frenzy.  One, the local population might have dropped off because of disease, or hunting.  Coyotes are also very territorial, so other groups might be slow to move into vacant hunting grounds. 

“Second thing is, I think you alluded to it, there’s probably a time lag,” he said.

This year’s warm spring and wet weather may have been just the right conditions for the rabbits to multiply like … rabbits.

“Rabbits are going to respond much more quickly to environmental queues than coyotes.  We see that in a lot of different predator / prey interactions,” said Breck, “so probably next year is when you’d see the increase in the coyote population.”

That time lag doesn’t mean coyotes are slouches.  They are masters of adaptation, thriving in different ecosystems, even urban environments.  As the climate changes and puts pressure on all species, Breck says that coyotes will probably do just fine.

“They’re very likely going to do well regardless of what our climate does.  They’re a very adaptable species, what we call a generalist species.  They’ll find food in a variety of scenarios and a variety of environments,” he said.

That tenacity will keep the coyote around.  The problem is that human changes favor generalists, so specialists like the Sage Grouse don’t do as well.  Compound that with the fact that invasive species tend to be generalists who have no problem adapting to change, and it looks like unusual things might be happening in every ecosystem, not just Sue’s back yard.

I’ve you’ve noticed things are quieter, or louder, let us know at iseechange.org.