As a recent, chilly afternoon at my deer stand turned into evening and then into night, I reflected on the day, the hunting season (now closed) and current events.

Suddenly a howl broke the silence, followed by another and then another, all from the same location. That call of the wild always raises the hairs on the back of my neck, even though I have never feared coyotes.

They were feeling the chill as I was and, as I left my stand, I knew that they were preparing to take the night shift.  I wished them luck as I headed through the dark to my truck.

On the walk back, I thought about something else I had noticed, this time on Twitter.  “One less FAWN KILLER” the post read, with a picture of a mangled coyote.

The post bothered me — many people don’t appreciate seeing dead things, particularly ones that are so bloody, and it leaves a very bad taste in their mouths about hunting. The words “fawn killer” only made it worse, as if there was something wrong with a coyote killing a fawn.

There isn’t, but it showed the motivation the person had for taking the coyote’s life. It wasn’t for food, or for the luxurious fur, or even for the challenge; it was because of competition. The coyote was killed because the Tweeter had decided that one less coyote meant more deer for him, and that was a good thing.

This is a common motivation, but it a refrain that is not based on science. Like a lot of misinformation these days, it is based on a conspiracy theory, an alternative reality in which predators are bad and people who kill them are good.

In reality, predators are not “bad.” Predators kill prey to live, just as humans kill other organisms, such as corn, soybeans, chickens, cows and deer to live. Are we bad for eating other living things?

The outcome is certainly bad for our food, but that is the way life works. Coyotes, bobcats, hawks, largemouth bass, salamanders, spiders and every other predator does the same thing. We kill to live.

Do coyotes kill fawns? Of course they do; at times, it’s an easy meal. But fawns are only easy for a few short weeks, until they are able to escape predators. During that brief time, coyotes sometimes consume so many fawns that it causes declines in deer populations.

They also will occasionally take adult deer, particularly in northern regions with heavy snowfall that can limit a deer’s ability to escape. They rarely, however, are able to kill a healthy, adult deer without assistance from deep snow.

It is obvious from population studies, however, that the effects of coyotes on most white-tailed deer populations have been negligible, at best. Coyotes have spread everywhere throughout the United States, a consequence of humans removing their major competitors, wolves, and the successful restoration of deer and other prey species.

Since the expansion of coyotes, the white-tailed deer population has only increased, and now there are more whitetails on the continent than ever before. Deer numbers, it turns out, are more affected by habitat and winter conditions than coyotes.

Additionally, a number of scientific studies have shown that humans cannot control coyote populations for more than short periods of time. Humans are not like wolves, in that they do not hunt or trap 24/7, 365 days a year. Wolves must kill their own prey constantly to survive, and so they are always on the landscape defending their territories from other wolves, coyotes and other predators.

Modern humans cannot keep up that same pressure, and though studies show that intensive trapping can affect coyote numbers over the short term, its effects are typically limited to a few years. The coyotes bounce right back.

There are several reasons why there are so many coyotes throughout our continent. Our decimation of other predators and the availability of prey is certainly part of that equation. It is also true that their behavior is very flexible around humans, and they have learned how to live around us, often even living within our cities.

Recent studies have shown that they respond to higher hunting pressure by spreading into more habitats and producing larger litters of pups, meaning that hunting can actually have an overall positive effect on coyote numbers, not a negative one. Not only can we not control these predators, but also our attempts to control them can actually increase their populations.  Reality rears its ugly head once again.

There are other reasons why we might want to give coyotes a pass and let them live. Humans are not doing a very good job at controlling deer populations, either. Our farms, our forests and our vehicles have all suffered because of it. We could use the help, and perhaps with proper hunter management, the combined forces of humans and coyotes could actually make a dent.

It is also true that one reason we have deer that are fun to hunt is because of predators. It is the predators of the past — the wolves, coyotes, bobcats, cougar and bears — that helped select for deer that were better at escaping predators.

Those that were not as smart, or not as quick, or didn’t have the best sense of smell, vision or hearing — those deer all died, taking their genes with them. Predators honed the white-tailed deer, as well as elk, rabbits, squirrels and other fun things to hunt — into the challenging species they are today.

Keeping that pressure up on deer — even minimally with coyotes — makes for more fun in the fall.

Finally, consider the other benefits that coyotes provide to our wildlife. Most of the year, they primarily eat small mammals, like mice, voles and rabbits, and occasionally a raccoon or opossum.

The latter two species often eat the eggs of turkeys, and thus coyotes can potentially help turkey populations by controlling egg predators. Might coyotes eat the eggs themselves?  Yes, certainly, and they take a few young turkeys once in a while, as well.  But raccoons and opossum are much more likely to focus on turkey nests than coyotes, which have a much broader diet than these species.

Like a lot of conspiracy theories — climate change, masking and stolen elections come to mind — it is often difficult to convince someone with facts when they believe the conspiracy.

Conspiracies fit a person’s worldview: they want to believe that coyotes are “bad” because they’ve been told by others that they are bad and by the media that they watch and read that they are bad and they must be bad because they are predators because all predators are bad.  Right?

Science tell us otherwise. It may be inconvenient to some, and everyone can have their own opinion. But there is only one set of facts.

Conspiracies never die quickly, and coyotes have been dealing with the predator conspiracy for millennia. Consider the impact of characters such as the “Big Bad Wolf,” which first appeared in Aesop’s fables in 600 B.C., followed by sequels in Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs, among others.

In all of these fictional works, the predator is the villain. If kids grow up believing wolves, coyotes and other predators are evil from day one, is it that surprising they will shoot them as adults for no other reason than for being “bad”?

Many people enjoy hunting coyotes because of the same challenge they feel when hunting deer. Many also hunt or trap coyotes in the winter to take advantage of their fur, which is used in clothing or for home decoration.

Everyone hunts with different motivations in mind; but to me, hunting them for being what they are, predators, is not sufficient justification for taking an animal’s life.

I have wrestled with the thought of hunting them myself, but realized that if I was not going to eat them and was not prepared to tan the fur, what was the point?  Life is precious and, to me, taking any life is a sacred act, like defending our freedom. We certainly shouldn’t be killing because of misguided conspiracies.

 

HOWARD WHITEMAN, who lives northwest of Paris, is a professor of wildlife and conservation biology in Murray State University’s Department of Biological Sciences and is director of its Watershed Studies Institute. His email address is hwhiteman@murraystate.edu.

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